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News note

Agencies join forces to inform and educate on avian flu and human pandemic risks in the Americas

WASHINGTON, D.C., 25 July 2006 ― A new push to communicate on the threats of avian influenza and a possible human pandemic was launched today by representatives of international agencies, at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) headquarters in Washington.

Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has yet not been reported in birds or humans anywhere in the Americas. But “we need to be prepared for H5N1 to enter the Western Hemisphere … We should take this interval to get prepared,” said David Nabarro, senior United Nations System coordinator for avian and human influenza, in a message taped for the meeting.

Participants in the meeting, including experts on human health, animal health and communications from key U.N. agencies and other partners, endorsed an Inter-Agency Communication Framework for Avian and Pandemic Influenza in the Americas. The framework sets forth a common approach for communicating with the media, government officials, the private sector and the general public, as part of ongoing efforts to prevent and prepare for avian and pandemic flu.

“All of us are aware that the risk of an avian influenza outbreak is very real,” said Jim Butler, Deputy Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). “We have to act immediately and develop appropriate strategies for communicating the risks involved.”

Recent public opinion research in Latin America and the Caribbean shows poor understanding and low public awareness of the risks of avian and pandemic influenza and widespread skepticism about the likelihood of H5N1 mutating into a new human virus that could spark a pandemic. Few people in the region see the problems as requiring priority attention.

But experts at the meeting agreed that avian influenza could reach the Americas at any time. To date, H5N1 has been detected in birds in some 45 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, spreading to 30 of those countries in just the past six months. The disease has prompted the death or culling of more than 200 million birds and has cost $10 billion in economic losses in Asia alone. In 10 countries, the virus has infected humans, causing 231 cases and 133 deaths as of July 20.

“We must take advantage of the experience of other regions to inform and prepare our own region,” PAHO Director Mirta Roses told the Washington meeting.

The arrival of H5N1 in birds in Latin America and the Caribbean would represent a serious threat to the poultry industry. The region produces some 16.1 million tons of poultry meat and 5.4 million tons of eggs each year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Major outbreaks of H5N1 could cost the region some $3.7 billion―3.5 percent of agricultural output―according to the IDB, not including the costs of compensating farmers for livestock losses.

H5N1 could also have a major impact on food sufficiency in the region. The effect would be greatest on the poor, since poultry is a relatively cheap source of protein.

An even greater concern than bird flu, however, is that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a strain that is easily transmissible between humans. This could happen anywhere in the world and would likely spread rapidly, sparking an influenza pandemic that could claim millions of lives and cause major economic and social disruption.

Experts say the farther the avian virus spreads geographically, the more chances it has to interact with new human and animal hosts and to acquire the ability to transmit easily between humans. Therefore, the best chance for preventing a human influenza pandemic is by controlling the disease at its source, that is, in birds. A key part of this effort consists of effective risk and outbreak communication.

Among the specific goals of the regional communication effort:

• Build trust in animal and public health officials;
• Work with governments, media and private sector to bolster communication capacity and encourage transparency;
• Disseminate messages to strengthen preparedness and encourage safe individual behaviors;
• Make available free communication tools for use by all.

Participants in the two-day meeting included representatives of PAHO/World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the World Bank, the IDB, the Regional International Organization for Animal and Plant Health (OIRSA), the UN System Influenza Coordination (UNSIC), the UN Information Centers (UNIC), the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Several US government departments and agencies also participated in this week’s meeting.

UNICEF will coordinate the inter-agency communication task force until the end of 2006.

• ‘Bird flu’ - Avian influenza, which most commonly affects birds and only rarely infects humans.
• ‘Pandemic flu’ - Human influenza caused by a novel virus to which the world's population has little or no immunity, and which results in large outbreaks in various regions of the world.

For 60 years UNICEF has been the world’s leader for children, working on the ground in 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

For more information contact:
Robert Cohen, UNICEF, rcohen@unicef.org Tel. 1-507-301-7493
Donna Eberwine-Villagrán, PAHO, eberwind@paho.org Tel. 1-202-974-3122




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