Auckland, New Zealand, 18 September 2006—A senior official of the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a fresh warning today about the continuing threat of an influenza pandemic set off by the ongoing avian influenza crisis.
"We have to make sure we are ready for a worst-case scenario," warned Dr Richard Nesbit, WHO's acting Regional Director for the Western Pacific. "We are not yet out of the woods."
High on the agenda of the Regional Director's report to the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, WHO's governing body in the Region, was the progress made by WHO, in collaboration with Member States, in the battle against avian influenza, which has caused deaths and infected poultry and wild fowl around the Region and elsewhere.
"Member States and the international community have done a great deal in the fight against avian influenza, but we still need to do much more if we are to prevent a human pandemic," Dr Nesbit told representatives of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific meeting here today.
In Asia, deaths in humans have occurred in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Viet Nam. The virus has also spread to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The Western Pacific Region remains on the front lines in the fight against avian influenza for the third consecutive year despite efforts to prevent the virus from spreading. The A(H5N1) virus, which was detected in the Region in late 2003, is now well entrenched in poultry. Although no efficient transmission of the virus between humans has been noted, 235 cases have been confirmed with 137 deaths. Most of those cases are believed to have been caused by direct contact with infected birds.
Referring to the broad challenges confronting the Western Pacific Region, Dr Nesbit said: "While we battle newly emerging diseases, we must also continue to deal effectively with traditional communicable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, as well as the increasing onslaught of noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension that once seemed to afflict only the developed world."
The Regional Director's report to the Committee included other health issues in the Western Pacific Region. They were:
- Viet Nam has achieved neonatal tetanus elimination status.
- The Region continues to be free of poliomyelitis.
- The Regional Committee's endorsement last year of the twin regional goals of measles elimination and hepatitis B control by 2012 has provided fresh impetus to the work of the programme.
Malaria, other vectorborne and parasitic diseases
- Malaria continues to be a major cause of ill health in 10 countries in the Region.
- WHO continues to provide technical assistance for diagnosis, treatment and the control of mosquitoes that carry the infection.
- WHO is working with Interpol and other partners to control counterfeit antimalarial drugs.
- HIV/AIDS and TB co-infection: HIV/AIDS and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis are increasing threats to tuberculosis control.
- WHO, having successfully overseen the reaching of 100% DOTS coverage, which is the WHO-recommended strategy to fight TB, is now focusing on cutting to half TB prevalence and mortality by 2010 compared to 2000 levels..
- The Region has made substantial progress towards achieving the targets set for 2005—providing access to DOTS to 100% of the Region's population, detecting 70% of the estimated TB cases, and successfully treating 85% of detected cases.
Sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS
- HIV/AIDS remains a major concern in the Region, where some 78 000 people with AIDS died in 2005.
- HIV prevalence continues to rise in Papua New Guinea, while it is on the decline in Cambodia.
- The epidemic is growing, particularly among at-risk populations such as sex workers and injecting drug users, in China, Malaysia and Viet Nam.
- WHO is supporting Member States in the implementation of cost-effective HIV interventions—changing high-risk behaviour in groups with a high prevalence of HIV infection, promoting the use of clean needles and condoms, and expanding voluntary screening and links to care.
- The "3 by 5 Initiative" contributed substantially to improving care and treatment in four countries in the Region initially targeted: Cambodia, China, Papua New Guinea and
Child and adolescent health development
- The WHO/UNICEF Regional Child Survival Strategy, an integrated approach intended to improve access to an essential package of child-survival interventions, is now being used by Member States as an advocacy tool and guide.
- All 27 of the Region's eligible Member States have ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, making the Western Pacific Region the leader among WHO regions in becoming parties to the Convention.
Health systems development
- Many countries are using the WHO's Biregional Strategy on Health Care Financing, developed jointly by WHO's South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regional Offices, as a framework to develop policies that will lead to increased investments in health.
The Regional Committee, composed of representatives from the Western Pacific's 27 Member States, is meeting until Friday to review WHO's work in the Region and the future directions it will take.