8 May 2009
Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization
Honourable ministers, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for convening this special meeting of health ministers, and thank you for giving me an opportunity to address you.
Above all, thank you for your diligence all these years in tracking the H5N1 virus in humans and animals, in reporting and treating so many cases, and in dealing with so many tragic deaths.
For five long years, you have kept this avian virus under watch, and largely under control.
As we know today, the virus with the greatest pandemic potential, the H1N1 virus, has sprung up from another source, on another side of the world.
But H5N1 taught the world to expect a pandemic, and to plan for this event.
The world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history, thanks, in part, to your vigilance and diligence.
Years of alert and expectation mean that most countries now have preparedness plans. Vaccine manufacturing capacity has increased sharply. Large stocks of antiviral drugs have been produced and procured.
Right now, treatment courses from the WHO stockpile are being shipped to more than 70 countries in the developing world.
We are, right now, gaining experience in the use of non-medical interventions, such as social distancing, to delay spread of the H1N1 virus.
WHO and its regional offices have tested their alert and response plans, also in operational exercises. We are prepared.
In addition, we have the backing of the greatly strengthened International Health Regulations.
This is a time of great uncertainty for all countries, and great pressure on ministers and ministries of health. The only certain thing that can be said about influenza viruses is that their behaviour is entirely unpredictable. No one can say how the current situation will evolve.
Countries will, quite rightly, want to do everything possible to prevent the arrival of the virus or, once in a country, to delay its further spread and thus flatten the epidemiological peak.
At the same time, it is important for countries to refrain from introducing economically and socially disruptive measures that lack solid scientific backing and bring no clear public health benefit.
The rational use of travel- and trade-related measures is always wise. It is all the more wise at a time of severe economic downturn.
Ladies and gentlemen,
On this occasion, let me make two additional requests.
First, do not drop the ball on monitoring H5N1. This virus is endemic in poultry in parts of the region. We have no idea how H5N1 will behave under the pressure of a pandemic.
Second, H5N1 has conditioned the public to equate an influenza pandemic with very severe disease and high mortality. Such a disease pattern is by no means inevitable during a pandemic. On the contrary, it is exceptional.
From past experience, ASEAN+3 countries know what it means to be at centre-stage during the outbreak of a new disease. We must battle misperceptions with the facts, and respond to the disease with the facts. I know you will help me on this front as well.
The decision to declare an influenza pandemic will fall on my shoulders. I can assure you, I will take this decision with utmost care and responsibility.