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G8 Health Ministers Array Their Forces for Bird Flu Battle

GENEVA, Switzerland, May 2, 2006 (ENS) - In planning to confront a potential global bird flu pandemic, the international community must leave no nation out, the head of the UN health agency warned the health ministers of the world¹s eight leading industrial countries ahead of the G8 Summit in July. While G8 finance, energy, and foreign ministers usually meet in preparation for a summit, the Moscow meeting Friday was the first time health ministers have met in advance.

"We must act as a global community," World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook told the G8 health ministers in Moscow. "We must help develop comprehensive national preparedness plans, strengthen surveillance systems, and build laboratory networks."

Since February the potentially deadly H5N1 bird flu virus has spread to 34 more countries, in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, several of them in the world's most densely populated and deprived areas.

"In a sense, the threat of human pandemic influenza is a stress test for the international community," Lee said. "Are we in good shape to face a potential global disaster? This question has to be asked again and again by every member state and international organization. It is a disgrace if we fail to recognize that we are in bad shape, and fail to put things right," he warned.

Lee expressed the hope that the upcoming Moscow G8 summit "will be a watershed for the global control of communicable diseases."

The G8 Group is an unofficial forum of the heads of the eight most powerful industrialized nations - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, with a limited role for the European

Russia is hosting this year's summit in St. Petersburg from July 15 to 17, the first time Russia has hosted a G8 meeting.

Combating infectious diseases is one of the issues Russia has placed in the spotlight for the 2006 G8 summit.

While the health ministers discussed other communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as major threats to global progress, development and security throughout the world, they focused most of their attention on limiting the potential for a bird flu pandemic.

In a statement at the close of their meeting, the G8 health ministers said they discussed the possible development of a human influenza pandemic that could severely affect all countries of the world. Although there have been scores of millions of flu deaths among birds worldwide, there have so far only been 205 human cases, 113 of them fatal, since the current H5N1 outbreak started in South East Asia in December 2003. Most of the human cases were ascribed to contact with infected birds, but a few people appear to have contracted the disease from sick family members.

Experts fear the virus could mutate, gaining the ability to pass easily from person to person. In a worst case scenario, the infection could spread rapidly, triggering a deadly human pandemic.

"Today many organizations in the UN family play a vital role in global communicable disease control - directly or indirectly," Dr. Lee said. "A nimble UN system which is robust, light, and therefore respected and credible, is key for the success of this global effort to control communicable diseases."

"I cannot emphasize enough the role of the G8 countries in making this happen," he told the ministers. He applauded the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza as "a hugely important mechanism for concerted action."

The health ministers said priority efforts should focus on the early detection and control of the H5N1 strain of bird flu at its source as well as on the prevention of and preparedness for a potential human influenza pandemic.

"We recognize the importance of pandemic preparedness and prevention through the provision of treatment means, communications strategies, public awareness campaigns, close coordination between veterinary and public health authorities, support for and cooperation in research activities and development of new technologies and new means of treatment," the ministers said in their joint statement.

They welcomed the global early warning system coordinated jointly by the
WHO, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, and the World Organization
for Animal Health.

The ministers said they all should develop their capacities for early detection and containment of an outbreak of the human-to-human infection on national, cross border, regional and international level as recommended at the Conference held in Tokyo on January 12-13.

The ministers urged all countries to voluntarily adopt the revised International Health Regulations (IHRs), which they called an important instrument for development of core capacities, the exchange of epidemiologic information, quick mutual response and consultations to prevent the pandemic.

They pledged close cooperation among their countries in conformity with the revised regulations.

They welcomed the commitment given by the Russian Federation both to increase the capacity of public health systems in Central Asia and to develop collaboration among the public health authorities of this region.

Dr. Lee stressed the urgent need for sufficient education to make up for the huge shortfall in trained health workers, especially in developing countries, without whom, he said, poverty reduction and achievement of the UN Millennium Developemt Goals aimed at slashing a host of socio-economic ills by 2015, are "a pipe dream."