Bird Flu: Is the world adequately prepared?

Despite an advance warning that has lasted almost two years, the world is ill-prepared to defend itself during a pandemic. WHO has urged all countries to develop preparedness plans, but only around 40 have done so. WHO has further urged countries with adequate resources to stockpile antiviral drugs nationally for use at the start of a pandemic. Around 30 countries are purchasing large quantities of these drugs, but the manufacturer has no capacity to fill these orders immediately. On present trends, most developing countries will have no access to vaccines and antiviral drugs throughout the duration of a pandemic.

The best way to prevent a pandemic would be to eliminate the virus from birds, but it has become increasingly doubtful if this can be achieved within the near future. Following a donation by industry, WHO will have a stockpile of antiviral medications, sufficient for 3 million treatment courses, by early 2006. Recent studies, based on mathematical modelling, suggest that these drugs could be used prophylactically near the start of a pandemic to reduce the risk that a fully transmissible virus will emerge or at least to delay its international spread, thus gaining time to augment vaccine supplies.

The success of this strategy, which has never been tested, depends on several assumptions about the early behaviour of a pandemic virus, which cannot be known in advance. Success also depends on excellent surveillance and logistics capacity in the initially affected areas, combined with an ability to enforce movement restrictions in and out of the affected area. To increase the likelihood that early intervention using the WHO rapid-intervention stockpile of antiviral drugs will be successful, surveillance in affected countries needs to improve, particularly concerning the capacity to detect clusters of cases closely related in time and place.


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