PARIS -- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Institut Pasteur (IP) today agreed to carry out joint activities, beginning in southeast Asia, to strengthen global capacity to detect influenza viruses that could have the potential to trigger a human pandemic. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed by HHS deputy secretary Alex M. Azar and IP president Alice Dautry, establishes a Joint HHS-IP working group to oversee the development of collaborative projects, to include
* Building capacity in terms of surveillance, epidemiological investigation, testing, diagnosis, and control of infectious disease in countries affected by and at-risk for the spread of the H5N1 influenza strain
* Exchanging technical expertise to foster rapid response to disease threats
* Disseminating effective and accurate public information on infectious disease, including in local languages in developing countries
"The looming threat of a global influenza pandemic demands global, regional and national attention, and preparation and response to a pandemic is a shared responsibility," Azar said. "This partnership will substantially strengthen the capacity to prepare for and respond to a pandemic in countries where avian influenza is now endemic in poultry and where human infections and deaths have occurred. We are very pleased to partner with the IP, an internationally respected research institute with such an impressive global network of institutes."
The working group will initially focus on activities and cooperation in southeast Asia, where the bulk of reported cases of H5N1 avian influenza has been found. In addition, potential activities include organizing scientific conferences, conducting training exercises, and fostering exchanges among experts that will improve preparedness for and response to infectious diseases, with particular emphasis on respiratory diseases and influenza.
"The avian flu and respiratory diseases have been our constant concern, especially in the Pasteur Institutes in the Asian region," Dautry said, "We have laid a heavy focus on them since 2004 and heartily welcome this new partnership with HHS to fight the potential pandemic. This is a unique opportunity to join efforts to fight infectious diseases upfront."
In October 2005, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt led a combined U.S. and international delegation of health experts on a 10-day, five-nation trip to southeast Asia, during which he met with officials from IP in Cambodia and other groups. The purpose of Secretary Leavitt's visit was to learn from countries that had first-hand experience in dealing with avian influenza, to emphasize to them the importance of sharing information in a timely fashion, to look at local capacity and to determine where HHS investments might make additional investments, consistent with the President's National Strategy on Pandemic Influenza. During this trip, and during subsequent negotiations led by HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness Stewart Simonson, HHS and IP set out a plan to collaborate on containment efforts in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, as well as how to enhance surveillance for H5N1 in those countries.
Health professionals are concerned that the continued and expanded spread of the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus, now endemic in poultry populations across eastern Asia and other parts of the world, represents a significant threat to global health security. The H5N1 virus has raised concerns about a potential human pandemic because it is especially virulent; spread by migratory birds; transmitted from birds to mammals, and, in some limited circumstances to humans; and, like other influenza viruses, it continues to evolve.
Since 2003, a growing number of human H5N1 cases have been reported in Thailand, China, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Turkey and Iraq, and more than half of the people infected with the H5N1 virus have died. Exposure to infected poultry is believed to have caused all these cases. The concern is that H5N1 will evolve into a virus capable of sustained human-to-human transmission.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services