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Preparing for a pandemic

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Last week's international ministerial meet in New Delhi on avian and pandemic influenza has managed to put together an apparently sound 21-point road map for 2008, to improve countries' preparedness to prevent or cope with this death-defying menace, but without committing the resources required for this purpose. No more than nine of the 111 countries and 29 global organisations represented at the meet came forward to pledge donations, totalling just $406 million, which is well short of the requirement, estimated to run into billions of dollars. This, it hardly needs to be said, is a reflection on the seriousness with which the world is taking this hazard, which, going by the World Health Organisation's (WHO's) reckoning, could affect about a third of humanity if it were to assume pandemic dimensions. Past experience shows that each century since the 16th century has witnessed at least three major flu pandemics, the worst being the one in 1918, when over 40 million people perished. What is worse is that, unlike climate change, whose impact is slow to crystallise, a flu pandemic can strike with a speed that may prove difficult to match with remedial action.
What is not fully appreciated is that the current avian flu virus, H5N1, is among the most pathogenic ones and the threat from it, though seemingly under control, has neither abated nor ended. For, this virus is no longer confined to domestic birds (mainly poultry), at which stage it is easy to tackle, but has tended to spread to the wild and, more dangerously, migratory birds, making containment all the more difficult in case of an epidemic. This has also enhanced, quite dramatically, the chances of this virus getting into animals like pigs which can serve as ideal hosts for it to mutate into forms easily communicable to humans, thus triggering a pandemic. It is no wonder then that a human death due to bird flu was reported from China only last week while a fresh confirmed incident of viral infection came from Poland shortly afterwards. All this goes to confirm that no part of the globe is wholly secure from the onslaught of this plague, though the threat is more pronounced in the thickly populated Asian region neighbouring India, where sporadic cases continue to surface with a worrisome frequency.
The obvious, and important, lesson is that nothing short of well-coordinated worldwide action can guard humanity against this potential peril, and this requires rather elaborate preparedness. The New Delhi declaration has taken the first step in this direction by postulating the concept of "one world and one health" while, at the same time, stressing the need for evolving functional links between human and animal health systems at the national and international levels. But unless these well-meaning intentions are matched by equally well-conceived action, such announcements mean little. Since the required action needs resources, which the developing countries, which are at greater risk, lack, liberal support from the developed countries, in terms of both funds and research, is indispensable. Most developing countries do not have the facilities for testing and confirming an infection, leave alone ensuring adequate bio-security for animals and humans alike. Unless adequate external assistance is made available to them, the Sword of Damocles will continue to hang over all mankind.

First Published: Tue, December 11 2007. 00:00 IST