World Could Avoid Influenza Pandemic, Says WHO Regional Director

MANILA, Philippines -- The World Health Organization's regional director for the Western Pacific, Dr. Shigeru Omi, said today that the world might be able to avoid an influenza pandemic. While recognizing that the situation was perilous, Omi said a surge of help from the international community had brought a new impetus to the battle against the disease.

"I believe that the momentum that is now building up will give us a chance to change the course of history and head off a pandemic caused by the H5N1 virus," Omi told a news conference in Manila, where WHO's Western Pacific regional headquarters is based.  He added, "Of course, I have no illusions about the danger the world is in, because we are dealing with a virus that is unpredictable, firmly entrenched and continuing to spread."

Omi described the virus's geographical spread as "prodigious," reaching from southeast Asia to the very doorstep of Europe.  "All attempts to bring it under control in southeast Asia have failed," he added.

But now, nearly two years after H5N1 appeared in poultry in Thailand and Vietnam, there was a new dimension to the fight, he said.  "In the past few weeks, some of the world's wealthiest nations have stepped forward to join us in the struggle.  One of the biggest coalitions in the history of public health is now taking shape, bringing together rich and poor nations, donor agencies, scientists, the business community, and bodies such as the World Health Organization and those in animal health."

Omi welcomed the news that nearly $20 million had been promised this week in assistance to Cambodia, the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, Indonesia, and Vietnam. "I'm sure other initiatives will follow," he said.

But international assistance will not be enough, Omi said, if the affected countries do not share information about the virus and make available the samples they are collecting from infected people and poultry.  "Without those samples, we cannot know if the virus is mutating and if it is any closer to tipping the world into the unknown," he said.

Source: World Health Organization