--> Gill Blog: Experts: influenza pandemic inevitable, possibly imminent

Gill Blog

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Experts: influenza pandemic inevitable, possibly imminent

Recently, we posted the question on the Gill blog, "Are we ill-prepared for pandemic influenza?" And, following a meeting of world health leaders in Bangkok last week, the World Health Organization has released a dire warning concerning avian influenza—bird flu.

What's the threat to humans from bird flu? The Mayo Clinic explains:
Viruses are masters of interspecies navigation. Mutating rapidly and often grabbing the genetic material of other viruses, they can jump from animals to humans with a quick flick of their DNA. Sometimes, as in West Nile fever, the transfer occurs through an intermediate host such as a mosquito or tick. But viruses can also skip the middleman and make the leap directly.

Since the 1980s, when HIV was first identified, the list of diseases that have hitchhiked directly from animals to people has grown rapidly — hantavirus, SARS, monkeypox and, most recently, avian influenza, commonly called bird flu. With the exception of HIV/AIDS, perhaps none of these illnesses has more potential to create widespread harm than bird flu does.

In a recent article in the New York Times, the warnings of the World Health Organization about pandemic avian influenza are reported in frank terms.
Governments should be prepared to close schools, office buildings and factories to slow the rate of new infections if a pandemic strikes, and should work out emergency staffing arrangements to prevent a breakdown in basic public services like electricity and transportation, W.H.O.'s regional director for Asia and the Pacific, Dr. Shigeru Omi, said.

Such arrangements may be needed if the disease infects 25 to 30 percent of the world's population, Dr. Omi said in a speech and news conference. That is the W.H.O.'s current estimate for what could happen if the disease - currently found mainly in chickens, ducks and other birds - develops the ability to spread easily from person to person.

The death toll associated with the rapid spread of a new form of human influenza would be high, Dr. Omi said. While W.H.O. has previously said that the death toll would be 2 million to 7 million people, Dr. Omi said the toll "may be more - 20 million or 50 million, or in the worst case, 100" million.

And Dr. Omi said that in his opinion a global pandemic of influenza was "very, very likely" now.

The World Health Organisation's Peter Cordingley recently gave an interview to Australian Broadcasting Corporation's South-East Asia Correspondent Peter Lloyd.
PETER LLOYD: So what sort of recommendations is the WHO making to governments about how they should prepare for such a catastrophe?

PETER CORDINGLEY: Well, the first thing we tell them is, if there is a pandemic, don't count on a vaccine because first of all, there won't be one for at least six months. And secondly, even if there is one in large numbers after six months, you will not be able to immunise everybody. And if everybody is not immunised then quite clearly, this virus can slip through.

Everybody in the world has to be immunised to stop it and you can see that's just not realistic. So, they should a) stock up on anti-virals. Theses are the core anti-flu drugs that people use every year. It will not stop this virus, we don't think, but it might make the medical impact of this virus less serious.

The second thing they have to do is to scale up their public health systems. There's going to be a lot of sick people, hospitals are going to be overwhelmed. Isolation wards need now, to be identified and put in place. Doctors and nurses have to be trained in the right reactions.

And the third advice is of course, there is going to be large scale absenteeism from the workplace. These are the things that they should think about now, not when the pandemic starts, if it does start.

Wait a minute. Are governments making plans for large scale absenteeism from the workplace? Or, is workplace continuity something business leaders should be planning to manage for their corporations, now, as part of their Business Continuity Management strategy? We really should get together on this.


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