Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sharing of influenza viruses, access to vaccines and other benefits

Opening remarks at the Intergovernmental Meeting on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness
Geneva, Switzerland
15 May 2009

Sharing of influenza viruses, access to vaccines and other benefits

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Madam Chair, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I will be very brief. We are meeting at a critical time.

For five long years, countries in several parts of the world have been closely responding to outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza in animals, and sporadic cases in humans.

I thank health officials, clinicians, and scientists in all these countries, and the many experts and laboratories located elsewhere, for their unflagging vigilance and diligence in keeping close watch over this virus.

Today, we know that a virus with great pandemic potential, the new strain of the H1N1 virus, has emerged from another source on another side of the world. This virus has quickly demonstrated its capacity to spread easily from one person to another, to spread widely within an affected country, and to spread rapidly to additional countries.

We expect this pattern of international spread to continue.

This is a time of great uncertainty, and great pressure on governments, ministries of health, and WHO. I take it as my personal responsibility to keep the world informed, to adjust our recommendations as the situation evolves, and to prepare for a multiplicity of future scenarios.

Many critical measures are under way, for enhanced preparedness and for mitigation of the health effects. As I have consistently stated, gaps in response, coping, and mitigation capacities in different countries must be a top priority for WHO and the international community.

We are all in this together.

Fortunately, countries with confirmed H1N1 cases have launched aggressive responses to the new virus. Their timely sharing of viruses for risk assessment and analysis, and for making seed vaccine is commendable. We are getting new data daily, and we are beginning to get an early picture of the clinical spectrum and patterns of spread.

Outside Mexico, where the outbreak is not yet fully understood, the overwhelming majority of cases have been mild and self-limiting, with no need for treatment. Cases of severe or fatal infections have been largely, but not exclusively, confined to people with underlying chronic conditions.

We do not know if this partly reassuring picture will be maintained. Dr Fukuda will brief you fully on the current situation.

Apart from the intrinsic mutability of influenza viruses, other factors could alter the severity of current disease patterns, though in completely unknowable ways.

Let me draw your attention to just two.

First, scientists are concerned about possible changes that could take place as the virus spreads to the southern hemisphere and encounters currently circulating human viruses, as the normal influenza season in this hemisphere begins.

Second, as all of you know, the H5N1 avian influenza virus is endemic in poultry in some parts of the world. It is out there, entrenched. No one can predict how the H5N1 virus will behave under the pressure of a pandemic.

As I said, we are meeting at a time of crisis that could have global implications. What the world needs most, right now, urgently, is information at all possible levels.

I wish you a most productive and fruitful meeting.

Thank you.

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