Chan: Bird Flu Huge Global Health Threat

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By ELIANE ENGELER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 16, 2007; 7:42 PM

GENEVA -- The U.N. health chief on Wednesday harshly criticized countries that do not share their H5N1 virus samples, accusing them of crippling the world in the fight against a possible flu pandemic.

"If you do not share the virus with us ... I would fail you," said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, in a speech to the agency's 193 member countries. Without H5N1 samples from affected countries, Chan said that "you are tying my hands, you're muffling my ears, you're blinding my eyes."

Chan did not single out any country by name, but Indonesia and China have been the main holdouts. Indonesia in particular has been locked in a virus stand off with WHO since last year.

Though Indonesia's health minister Tuesday announced that the country had shared three viruses with a WHO-accredited laboratory in Japan, it is uncertain whether further viruses will be shared. Indonesia has complained that the viruses it shares would be used for vaccines that its population cannot afford.

China has also been less than forthcoming with bird flu samples. No H5N1 viruses have been received from China for nearly a year _ during which time Beijing has reported several human bird flu cases. China is readying five virus samples to be shared with WHO, but it is unknown when they will actually be sent, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said.

Chan said that a flu pandemic would be the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. Tracking H5N1's evolution is essential to determine when virus mutations might enable it to be more easily spread between people.

Without current bird flu samples, Chan warned that the global community's current stockpiles _ numerous countries have bought anti-viral and pre-pandemic vaccine stockpiles _ would be wasted. "I need the virus to track new resistance patterns so that your investment in antivirals does not go down the drain," Chan said.

Several experimental pre-pandemic vaccines based on H5N1 exist, but as the virus continues to mutate, scientists need to match the latest circulating strain to that in the vaccine, to ensure that the vaccines would work.

Three draft resolutions on the sharing of bird flu samples and access to a future pandemic vaccine are being scrutinized by an expert group at WHO's annual gathering.

Key to the WHO's disease surveillance system, including early warning of a flu pandemic, are the WHO's revised International Health Regulations on preventing and responding to infectious disease threats which will come into effect June 15.

Many countries _ including the U.S. _ have already adopted them, though they remain voluntary. The new health regulations oblige countries to report new disease threats with global public health significance, such as new flu subtypes. They also allow the WHO to act on credible information sources, rather than being reliant strictly on official government channels. The regulations are not legally binding.

Chan said she would do her best to help countries implement the regulations.

"We are not afraid of difficulties. What we're afraid of, is lack of commitment on your part to deliver," she told WHO member states.

___

AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Associated Press

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