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U.S. Health Secretary Predicts Continued Spread of Bird Flu


October 24, 2005

Confirmation of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Europe leads U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt to predict that the disease will continue to spread.

"The virus has begun to use wild birds as its carrier, and it will go across predictable migratory flyways," Leavitt said at an October 21 press briefing. "There is no reason to think that it will not go to more [countries]. It is a natural phenomenon that is both predictable and certain."

Leavitt spoke Friday just days after he returned from a seven-nation trip through Southeast Asia. He and Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky spoke to top government leaders at every stop about the need for international partnership and collaboration in the effort to contain bird flu and to prevent its escalation into a full-blown influenza pandemic in the human population.

"I see a heightened understanding of both the problem and the need to confront it together," said Dobriansky. "Countries realize that the cost of taking action is significantly less than the cost of a pandemic."

The Leavitt-Dobriansky delegation included officials from other key U.S. government agencies, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

These organizations are all participants in the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, an 88-nation effort initiated by President Bush at the U.N. General Assembly in September. The goal of that partnership is to elevate the importance of the issue on national agendas to improve information sharing, vaccine development, and improvement of health infrastructure in developing countries.

Dobriansky said the October trip through Southeast Asia proves that the partnership is working, as leaders in each nation agreed to take stock of the actions needed to help contain bird flu and prevent a widespread pandemic of human disease.

The United States has provided $38 million for international efforts to support the nations most severely affected as they work to build up animal and public health systems to better detect and prevent disease.

Disease surveillance is a critical element in that endeavor, especially as avian influenza moves into new areas. Dobriansky said the United States is working to improve surveillance in Southeast Asia by supporting training programs for both animal and human health workers so they will more readily recognize disease.

Further U.S. assistance will provide financial and technical support for disease-monitoring among wild and domestic birds, including improved communication channels and laboratory facilities.

The outbreaks of avian influenza that began in December 2003 are the most extensive and widespread ever to occur. The highly pathogenic flu strain at fault - H5N1 - has caused the death or destruction of more than 150 million birds at an estimated economic loss of some $3 billion. The virus has also caused almost 120 cases of human disease, with 61 of those fatal.

Health experts warn that H5N1 could mutate to become a virus contagious among humans, setting off a global pandemic that could kill up to 7 million people. Illness among hundreds of millions more could cause widespread economic and social disruption.


On the Web:

Transcript: Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, and U.S. Agency for International Development Andrew Natsios on U.S. Government Efforts to Combat Avian Influenza


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