WHO flu pandemic task force begins work

Sep 26, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – An international group of experts that will advise the World Health Organization (WHO) on avian and pandemic influenza issues met for the first time yesterday in Geneva, Switzerland.

Task force members will advise the WHO on the critical questions of when to raise the pandemic alert level, when to declare a pandemic, and how to handle the international response, according to the WHO. The panel is called the Ad Hoc Influenza Pandemic Task Force.

The task force is a temporary body that will advise the agency until the new International Health Regulations take effect in June 2007, according to a WHO news release. The new regulations were approved by the World Health Assembly in May 2005. The rules, version of which have been in effect since 1951, are designed to prevent the international spread of diseases.

The new rules require member countries to have or develop specific capabilities to identify and respond to public health emergencies of international concern and to take routine preventive measures at ports, airports, and border stations. The recent revision took into account lessons learned during the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak and the ongoing H5N1 avian influenza experience.

At yesterday's meeting, the task force mainly covered administrative tasks, such as setting roles and responsibilities, deciding how meetings will be run, and discussing how to hold emergency sessions via tele- or video conferencing. They also agreed to serve as an advisory group to WHO's Global Influenza Programme.

Of the 21 task force members, 16 were present at the first meeting, the Associated Press (AP) reported today. Absent were members from China, Indonesia, and Thailand.

A Canadian Press report named several of the experts who are on the task force. They include Dr. Robert Webster, St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.; Albert Osterhaus, a veterinary virologist from Erasmus University in Rotterdam; Dr. Nancy Cox, director of the influenza division at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Theresa Tan, director of the Public Health Agency of Canada's respiratory infections division; Dr. Maria Zambon from Britain's public health agency; Masato Tashiro, director of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases; and Dmitri Lvov, a virologist from Russia.

"How often we meet will be determined by the evolving avian influenza situation," Osterhaus told the AP. "But of course we hope it's as little as possible."

See also:

Sep 26 WHO press release

May 24 CIDRAP news article "WHO updates rules to prevent spread of disease"

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