113th Inter Parlementarian Union Assembly

Geneva, Switzerland
17 October 2005

Honourable Parliamentarians, Secretary-General, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

An important question that everyone is asking at the moment is: will there be a human influenza pandemic? The short answer is: there will. There is only one condition missing - a virus that is rapidly transmitted from person to person.

When will it come? We do not know, I do not know, but the new virus could appear anytime.

What is the expected political and social cost? It will be huge. No Head of State, Parliament or Government can afford to be caught off guard.

However, the world has lived through SARS. We have shown our ability to respond dynamically to evolving situations and to make a success of disease control. So far, only 40 countries have made pandemic preparedness plans. That means there is still a great deal to do. We are facing a real challenge. There were between 40 and 50 million deaths in the 1918 flu pandemic. The influenza pandemic in the 1950s and 1960s were considered as mild, but they killed 3 million people.

What will the economic cost be of a pandemic? The economic cost of SARS has been estimated at $30 billion. Remember - there were fewer than 800 deaths from SARS throughout the whole outbreak. It is essential that good communications are in place so people know what to do. The more advance preparation we can do, the more we protect people against illness, death or destructive panic.

Where will it start? The pandemic is likely to start in one of the South-east Asian nations, because they have experienced continuing outbreaks of avian flu. We think that the pandemic flu virus in humans is most likely to come from a change in the avian flu virus H5N1.

Who has prevented the pandemic from starting so far? Small farmers in Asia have made huge sacrifices by culling their chickens when farms were infected. They were under-compensated: sometimes they were not compensated at all. Theirs is the single biggest contribution to the prevention of a human flu pandemic. The issue of compensation must be resolved now.

What is needed? How do we reduce the risks? Every country must have a national pandemic control plan. Every country needs a communications strategy, to educate the public about pandemic flu: what it is, and what it is not. Every government must be able to respond rapidly and effectively when the time comes. Preparedness is not about accepting the inevitable but about being positioned and alert to take opportunities.

Not everyone has the resources to do this. We must find ways to help poorer countries. Each country should have access to antiviral medication, whether procured independently, or provided through an international stockpile.

You can play an important role. The parliamentary community can be directly supportive of these preparedness and communications plans, for example, by making sure that all constituents, your constituents, are well informed about the situation as it emerges. Everyone should know what to do, and what not to do. Good communication is key.

Surveillance is also a top priority. We need early warning. There was no advance warning for the three pandemics of the previous century. This time can be different and should be different. We have to look out for a change in the pattern of human flu cases. We must identify human to human transmission at the earliest stage possible. Each country - each community - needs public health early warning systems that work. This means improving surveillance for disease in animals and humans, field investigations, diagnostic support, and incentives for people to report.

We must pounce on human flu outbreaks. The tools we have at the moment are antivirals, and social measures -like closing schools or limiting travel - to limit the spread of infection. We want to contain the pandemic, or at least slow its spread, at the earliest possible moment.

The best protection of all is an effective vaccine. The world will need to produce vastly increased volumes of vaccine when the time comes. This is a huge challenge. We currently do not have a vaccine that we know will be effective. Nor is there sufficient manufacturing capacity at present. There are no immediate and easy solutions to these issues. We are working with Member States and industry on these problems.

International collaboration is essential for success. WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, OIE and the rest of the UN family, are already working together closely. You can bring us one step nearer to getting the world ready, by ensuring that your countries have got their preparedness plans in place, and are rehearsing them. There is much to do. This is the time to act.

Thank you very much