Experts call for "global readiness' against emerging flu diseases

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Health ministers and experts have called for countries to pay attention to new diseases that may cross from animals to humans and prepare for the next pandemic, which could occur at any time.

"The only thing that we can be certain about is that there will be another crisis," said Olga Jonas, the World Bank's avian and influenza coordinator at the end of a three-day conference on fighting animal and pandemic influenza in Hanoi on April 21.

"We're not just fighting the crisis but building a system that can fight crisis," she told health ministers and experts from 70 countries and territories at the conference.

Experts adopted the Hanoi Declaration, which proposes a multi-sector approach to focus actions at the interface between human, animal and environmental health systems, and calls for strengthened international cooperation against diseases that can cross borders within days.

Dr. Timothy Uyeki, deputy chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the H1N1 epidemic demonstrated the need to focus on animal influenza virus that could occur in any animal not just birds or pigs.

According to a recent UN-World Bank study, the number of countries reporting H5N1 outbreaks in poultry or other species has declined since the 2006 peak of more than 60 countries.

However, experts at the conference noted that attention should not be shifted away from H5N1. The study suggested that H5N1, with a 44 percent fatality among humans, could yet undergo a mutation making it rapidly transmissible among people.

Vietnam recently confirmed its 119th case of H5N1 avian influenza, which has killed about half of its victims.

David Nabarro, senior UN system influenza coordinator who delivered his statement via conference call due to travel disruptions in Europe, called for sustained political commitment and funding to face the threat of similar or worse events arising in the future.

"We're better prepared for pandemics than ever before but there is more to be done and we must stay alert for new threats that may be around the corner," Nabarro said in his statement.

The meeting in Hanoi was the first high-level meeting during an influenza epidemic. According to organizers, about one fifth of the delegations could not arrive due to the travel situation in Europe and an earthquake in China.

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