WHO begins pandemic guidance update

May 6, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – World Health Organization (WHO) officials today kicked off a 4-day meeting in Geneva to begin revising pandemic preparedness guidance for countries, amid warnings that the risk of an influenza pandemic has not waned since the last update.

The new guidance will reflect important advances since the last guidance was issued in 2005, the WHO said in a recent statement. For example, several companies are working on or have developed H5N1 vaccines, clinicians have more experience treating patients who are infected with the virus, and the new International Health Regulations specify how member nations and the WHO should respond to pandemic influenza threats.

Keiji Fukuda, coordinator for the WHO's global influenza program, in an address to about 150 expert participants, said the pandemic threat remains substantial, the Associated Press (AP) reported today. "We can't delude ourselves. The threat of a pandemic influenza has not diminished," he told the group.

Fukuda told the group that more than 150 countries have preparedness plans, but their levels of detail vary, with some amounting only to brief statements acknowledging the risk, the AP reported.

The WHO statement said working groups at the meeting will focus on topics such as disease control, surveillance, nonpharmaceutical interventions, and pandemic communications. New draft guidelines from the meeting will circulate for comments. The WHO said it expects to publish the new pandemic planning guidance by the end of the year.

Supamit Chunsuttiwat, an infectious disease expert with Thailand's health ministry who is chairing the meeting, said the pandemic influenza risk is probably expanding, Reuters reported today. He told Reuters that the H5N1 virus persists on three continents and has infected humans in Indonesia, Egypt, and China this year.

"We are concerned that the spread through migratory birds hasn't stopped. Once the virus is established in birds it is difficult to get rid of the virus and the risk (to humans) remains unless countries develop good control of transmission in birds," he told Reuters.

Fukuda said the WHO's global stockpile of the antiviral medication oseltamivir (Tamiflu) contains 5 million treatment courses, and the organization is developing a vaccine stockpile that will initially contain 150 million doses, Reuters reported.

Since 2003, when the WHO began recording H5N1 cases, the virus has sickened 382 people, of whom 241 died.

See also:

WHO statement on pandemic planning guidance meeting

Apr 12, 2005, CIDRAP News story "WHO issues new plan for pandemic flu preparedness"

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