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Pandemic preparedness essential for the Pacific despite uncertainties

JAPAN, 13 May, 2009 – Countries in the Pacific need to be prepared incase of a pandemic outbreak of Influenza A H1N1, despite uncertainties pertaining to the virus.

“Although the status of the vaccine is still unknown, preparation is necessary. What we do know is that if a pandemic were to occur and a vaccine is produced, the country’s Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) will have to distribute it and the response will need to be rapid,” says Ms Diana Chang Blanc, Regional Immunisation Specialist of United Nations Children’s Fund East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (UNICEF EAPRO).

Speaking at the 5th Pacific Immunization Programme Strengthening Workshop in Nagasaki on Tuesday, Ms Blanc said currently there were a lot of uncertainties pertaining to the production of a vaccine for the influenza and factors such as whether the product would be sufficiently available, how much of it would be appropriate, how many doses would be needed and who the target population would be were still unknown.

Based on the information currently available, Ms Blanc said countries could ready themselves by paying attention to areas such as airport systems for clearance of the vaccine, the receipt and storage of the vaccines at national and sub-national levels, transportation, distribution, communication and control systems.

“If these things are not in place for routine services, the system will be strained under a pandemic scenario. The countries should not panic, but they should act now to institute better practices.”

Kiribati Public Health Officer, Dr Teatao Tiira said the threat of a pandemic angered them more than striking up a panic as they realized how much of their already limited resources a pandemic would take away from other priority areas.

“Our small population can be easily wiped out and that makes us nervous. Small countries with small number of resources are affected dramatically and we still don’t have enough information on how to go about protecting our people during a pandemic.”

Ms Blanc thanked the Japanese Government for their grant of $USD 62.1million to UNICEF to support national, regional, and global efforts to prevent, control and mitigate a potential catastrophic pandemic. The grant was borne out of a time when concerns for human cases of avian influenza A/H5N1 were high.

She said “it is in line with World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Action Plan for increasing the supply of pandemic influenza vaccines and strengthening EPI capacity and has benefited over 45 countries. $8 million was used to a support multi-pronged vaccine strategy, which includes strengthening national capacity to distribute vaccines.”

Speaking on the risks of the pandemic and the role of vaccination, Dr Manju Rani, an EPI scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for the Western Pacific said the next pandemic may spread faster than past pandemics due to globalization affecting 20 to 30 percent of the world’s population. However, he added health systems were better equipped than in previous pandemics to take care of patients and vaccines were also better.

According to Dr Manju, while a vaccine would be the most effective control measure in the case of a pandemic, production may take more than 6 months after the viral strain is identified. As a result, non-pharmaceutical measures may need to be deployed by countries to deal with the pandemic.

“This includes a rapid response to contain the virus as soon as it is identified by employing strategies such as those currently used by countries like Mexico where schools and towns were shut down although there is lack of evidence on how effective this may be and there are related legal and ethical issues.”

Another preparatory measure highlighted by Dr Manju was that Pacific nations look at their national pandemic preparedness plans and carry out some simulation exercises.

“Countries may also consider giving available influenza vaccines, even if only to high risk groups, to familiarize their national immunization systems with the delivery of influenza vaccines,” he said.

The PIPS workshop, which runs from May 11 - 15, is jointly organized by WHO and UNICEF and is held at the Nagasaki University in Japan. It features representatives from Pacific island nations’ ministries of health and regional, global and international health experts.

The workshop also has representatives from donor agencies, which include the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), New Zealand Agency for International Development (NZAID), the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the Rotary International District 2650.

For more information please contact, PIPS media consultant, Ms. Sarika Chand on telephone 080-6661-1285 or email: sarika.chand@yahoo.com

 

 
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