World is ‘unprepared for flu pandemic’

The world is unprepared for a flu pandemic, health officials said at a conference in Malaysia, citing a lack of political commitment, funding and a vaccine to protect humans against bird flu.

Without a vaccine against the deadly H5N1 strain, there’s no way of protecting billions of people who would be at risk should a pandemic start soon, officials from the US, UK and World Health Organisation (WHO) said at the International Congress on Infectious Diseases in Kuala Lumpur.

“We are a long way from being fully prepared,” Julie Gerberding, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters. “We do not have a vaccine that will provide universal protection, we do not have surveillance in every country, we do not have control of the virus in the animal reservoirs, and we have huge gaps in our basic understanding of influenza.”

Bird flu has killed 243 of the 385 people it is known to have infected since late 2003, the Geneva-based WHO says. Most of the cases followed close contact with birds. Health officials are concerned the virus could mutate into a form capable of passing as easily between people as it does between birds.

Public attention to the threat of an influenza pandemic peaked after the first human H5N1 infections in 2003, and has waned on perceptions the threat has eased, Gerberding said.

Confusion about who to trust for information, misplaced confidence that a solution will be found or a belief that nothing can be done to stop an outbreak brings complacency, the biggest threat to containing a pandemic, she said.

“Certainly at higher levels in many governments there is no longer the concern there was five years ago,” said David Heymann, the WHO’s assistant director-general for communicable diseases.


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