Press Releases

    ECOSOC/6217
    12 July 2006

    Economic and Social Council Holds Special Event on Avian Influenza:  A Global Emergency

    (Reissued as received)

    GENEVA, 10 July (UN Information Service) -- The Economic and Social Council this morning held a special event on Avian Influenza: a global emergency, hearing from a series of speakers representing United Nations agencies which dealt with preparing for a possible pandemic.  Several speakers called for further efforts to put in place effective strategies and to help developing countries to cope with the problem.

    Ali Hachani, President of the Economic and Social Council, said since February, the Avian Influenza virus had dramatically expanded its geographical footprint.  Between February and early April of this year, 32 countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East had reported cases of infection in migratory or domestic birds.  That was twice the number of countries affected during the previous two and a half years.  The Council should be fully engaged in that battle to prevent more human deaths and to prevent further loss of livelihoods, particularly among the poorer communities in developing countries. 

    David Harcharik Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said for the past two and a half years, the FAO had been in the forefront of international efforts in the fight against the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  Fortunately, in the majority of cases, wherever Avian Influenza had made its appearance, the countries concerned, with support from the global community, had been able to stop it in its tracks.

    Margaret Chan, Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO), said the disease had taken two years to infect 60 countries.  The WHO had been making efforts and was providing technical support to many countries.  It had carried out 50 country missions to assess the extent of the disease and to provide technical assistance.  The WHO had also designed a guide that could serve for the coming years with regard to the work that should be taken by the Organization. 

    Joseph Ingram, Special Representative of the World Bank in Geneva, said the Avian Flu virus had in the last six to nine months, gone global, with the impact on the poultry industry being severe, and the number of human infections and deaths reported to WHO having accelerated in the past six months.  The World Bank estimated that a severe flu pandemic among humans could cost the global economy about 3.1 per cent of world GDP, around USD 1.25 trillion. 

    Peter Batchelor, Team Leader, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Geneva, said that since January 2004, more than 209 million poultry had died or were culled worldwide.  The impact of the loss of poultry extended beyond farmers to poultry traders, feed mills and breeding farms.  Since 2003, the virus was known to have infected 228 people and killed 130 of them, mostly children and young adults. 

    Katherine Rooney, Representative of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), said the impact on the aviation industry had been felt after the events of the 11 of September 2001 and SARS.  In the event of a pandemic outbreak, the ICAO would need rapid answers to such questions as what screening measures were required at airports for travellers and cargo, among others.  The impact on the global aviation community of closing one local airport was vast. 

    Amr Abdel-Ghaffar, Programme Coordinator and Focal Point for Avian Flu at the United Nations World Tourism Organization, said that there was a high susceptibility of tourism to different types of disasters, especially health emergencies.  There was a need to deal with the crisis through management support within the United Nations World Tourism Organization. 

    Richard Blewitt, Director, Movement Cooperation Division of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said there was further need of improvement on the level of regional and global coordination of communication, in addressing together the issue of livelihoods and compensation and in identifying a clearer picture on the specific vulnerabilities during a pandemic. 

    In an interactive dialogue, delegations asked questions and raised issues such as the need for increased funding, the need to increase international policy cooperation and the coordination, cohesiveness and synergy of the United Nations system; and the need to put developing countries first and to provide support to developing their national plans and infrastructure for the situation, among other things.

     Speaking in the interactive dialogue were the representatives of China, Finland on behalf of the European Union, El Salvador, Russian Federation, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Thailand, United States, Indonesia, Australia, Guinea-Bissau, France, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Turkey.  The representatives of UNEP, UNICEF, and the World Organization for Animal Health also spoke.

    Before adjourning its morning debate, the Council briefly discussed the admission of four organizations to participate in the work of the Council without participating in the vote.  Ecuador, United States and South Africa participated in the discussion.

    When the Council meets at 3 p.m., it will resume its coordination segment and take up the issue of implementation of and follow-up to major United Nations conferences and summits; and economic and environmental questions, with a keynote address by the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation of Malaysia.

    Statements on Avian Influenza

    ALI HACHANI (Tunisia), President of the Economic and Social Council, said since February, the Avian Influenza virus had dramatically expanded its geographical footprint.  Between February and early April of this year, 32 countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East reported cases of infection in migratory or domestic birds.  That was twice the number of countries affected during the previous two and a half years.  It was clearly no longer a regional problem limited to East Asia but a real global threat.  Another development of note had been the recent laboratory-confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission of the virus.  It was important to note that the virus had not spread to the general community in the country concerned and had not shown any evidence of any ability to spread efficiently or sustainably from one person to another.  However, that development made it clear that urgent action had to be taken to prevent further human-to-human transmission if one was to minimize the risk of a human influenza.

    The Council should be fully engaged in that battle to prevent more human deaths and to prevent further loss of livelihoods, particularly among the poorer communities in developing countries.  The impact on many developing counties, especially the least developed countries already under a heavy burden of disease, malnutrition, and poor veterinary and health infrastructure, would be severe.  The Council should ensure that Avian Influenza would not further undermine the ability of those countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  The success would depend on the ability of all to raise awareness of the pandemic thereat, ensure transparency and credibility in identifying disease outbreaks and containing them, and maintain an adequate level of preparedness so that people felt secure and confident in the capacity of public institutions to respond.  Although much work had been done, more needed to be done to control the spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in poultry and reduce the number of human cases, and to prepare for a potential pandemic.

    DAVID HARCHARIK, Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said for the past two and a half years, the FAO had been in the forefront of international efforts in the fight against Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  Although there had undoubtedly been some successes, all should realize that Avian Influenza posed a continuing threat, and should brace to continue to fight it, quite likely for years, and this would require sustained political commitment, adequate funding, and strong international partnerships.  Besides its present and potential effects on human health, Avian Influenza also posed a different kind of threat to millions of people. 

    Fortunately, in the majority of cases, wherever Avian Influenza had made its appearances, the countries concerned, with support from the global community, had been able to stop it in its tracks, with a combination of tried and trusted methods and tools: culling, cleaning and disinfection, together with controls on the movement of animals and products, and vaccination where appropriate.  Once H5N1 was stopped in poultry, human cases stopped too.  Whilst this was heartening, the fact remained that Avian Influenza was still expanding, and was likely to remain with us for many years to come, both in parts of Asia and elsewhere in the developing world.  Continuing to fight Avian Influenza on a long-term basis raised the problem of funding.  Throughout the crisis, there had been close and excellent collaboration among the agencies in the United Nations system and beyond.  Although the world was going to have to live with the threat of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza for some years yet, given appropriate funding, firm political resolve and strong international partnerships, this disease could be held in check in birds and the risk of a human pandemic could be greatly reduced

    MARGARET CHAN, Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO), said Avian Influenza had taken two years to infect 60 countries.  Since the issue was a complicated one, it was good news that all partners had been mobilized to prevent the disease.  Although initially the disease originated from birds and humans could be infected only if they had direct contacts with those birds, it was recently reported that human-to-human transmission of the disease had been revealed.  The WHO had been making efforts and was providing technical support to many countries.  It had carried 50 country missions to assess the extent of the disease and to provide technical assistance.  The WHO had also designed a guide that could serve for the coming years with regard to the work that should be taken by the Organization. 

    The Council and the General Assembly had been providing valuable political support to the work of the Organization and hoped that the Council would continue to give guidance in that issue.  The Beijing pledge conference and the Vienna officials' conference had served as platforms for the financial assistance that should be provided to those countries affected by the diseases.  The effort in preventing the disease should be continued in a concerted manner.  The spread of the disease through birds and the cases of the human-to-human transmissions were the challenges ahead of the international community.  To support the efforts of the countries affected by the disease was another challenge that the whole community should mobilize itself to face. 

    JOSEPH INGRAM, Special Representative of the World Bank in Geneva, said the Avian Flu virus had in the last six to nine months, gone global, with the impact on the poultry industry being severe, and the number of human infections and deaths reported to WHO having accelerated in the past six months.  The World Bank estimated that a severe flu pandemic among humans could cost the global economy about 3.1% of world GDP, around USD 1.25 trillion.  To date, in most countries the impact of Avian Flu at the macroeconomic level had been relatively limited, but the impact on the poultry sector itself had been dramatic.  The Bank was working with the international technical agencies to improve policy advice on key issues such as compensation for culling and strategic vaccination of poultry. 

    The World Bank, in coordination with the Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian Influenza, David Nabarro, agreed to jointly monitor and report on the use of the commitments made, to identify overlaps and gaps and report regularly to donors on progress; and provide a single integrated set of information, pulling together country programmes, technical updates, and outcomes of international technical and coordinating meetings.  The Bank would continue to work with its partner United Nations agencies, focusing its efforts to help put in place effective programmes at the country level.  This would require political leadership and commitment not only at the country level, but also in the international community, to ensure that adequate grant resources were made available for robust country programmes, wherever and as soon as these were prepared.  It would continue to encourage focus on results in effective virus control in all countries where it had already appeared and preparedness everywhere else.  Fighting the virus at its animal source, to delay (if not prevent) the emergence of a pandemic strain, was an investment with a phenomenally high expected rate of return. 

    PETER BATCHELOR, Team Leader, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Geneva, said that since January 2004, more than 209 million poultry had died or were culled worldwide.  The impact of the loss of poultry extended beyond farmers to poultry traders, feed mills and breeding farms.  Effect on GDP had varied according to the poultry sector's contribution to GDP.  While in macro-economic terms losses had been limited, the impact had been felt strongly by rural households that depended on backyard poultry for food and income, as well as by wage labourers who lost their employment.  Since 2003, the virus was known to have infected 228 people and killed 130 of them, mostly children and young adults.  Human inflection with H5N1 was rare, and usually the result of virus transmission from birds to humans; human to human transmission had occurred but did not seem to have been sustained.

    If, in spite of efforts to contain the Avian Influenza virus, a global pandemic would emerge, the effect on humans, the global economy and financial markets would be catastrophic.  The issues note prepared for the event provided some estimates of the costs of a pandemic.  Given the threat posed by Avian Influenza to global human and animal health, and to the livelihoods of, especially, the poor, policies and operational measures were urgently needed.  Such policies should bring together all concerned ministries such as agriculture, animal health, human health, finance, planning and tourism, as well as local government and communities.  Operational measures should include, among other things, technical capacity building, compensation schemes, restructuring of the poultry sector, and alternative livelihoods strategies to help avoid poor people from falling below the poverty line.

    KATHERINE ROONEY, Representative of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), said the impact on the aviation industry had been felt after the events of the 11 of September 2001 and SARS.  The ICAO had created draft guidelines for States, and sent them to the Director-Generals of civil aviation.  The main participating organizations in developing these had been the WHO and the International Air Transport Association.  Specific guidelines relative to airports and airlines had also been developed.  The challenges which were seen within the ICAO showed that the speed of response was critical in the event of a pandemic, and communication was vital.  At governmental level, departments for transport, health and security at least needed to participate in developing a national plan, which should reflect the WHO guidelines and international health regulations. 

    A cross-organizational approach involving governmental and non-governmental organizations was essential.  A consistent message should be provided by the United Nations family, with all referring to a single web-based source that should be kept up to date and relevant.  In the event of a pandemic outbreak, the ICAO would need rapid answers to such questions as what screening measures were required at airports for travellers and cargo, among others.  The impact on the global aviation community of closing one local airport was vast.  Rapid responses from the United Nations system were critical.  A United Nations crisis management office to handle questions as they arose, to assist in maintenance and updating of websites and media briefings would be very important.  Regional expertise was also important, and there should be expertise related to aviation in order to provide advice in every region of the world.  The issue of coordination and communication was vital.

    AMR ABDEL-GHAFFAR, Programme Coordinator and Focal Point for Avian Flu at the United Nations World Tourism Organization, said that there was a high susceptibility of tourism to different types of disasters, especially health emergencies.  There was a need to deal with the crisis through management support within the United Nations World Tourism Organization.  Avian Flu preparedness was needed for a structured and coordinated approach to risk assessment and management.  For the initial Avian Flu response activity, it was also necessary that all UN agencies worked in concert and the Tourism Organization should play an important role.  A network should also be created to disseminate information on the spreading of the virus.  The World Tourism Organization had put in place avian preparedness guidelines for tourism sector and its staff in dealing with the virus.

    In order to face the challenges, one had to ensure full engagement of national tourism administrations in national preparedness efforts; ensure consistency of messages and cohesiveness of the tourism industry's response; develop public- private partnerships; and ensure efficiency and timeliness of technical support and operational assistance.

    RICHARD BLEWITT, Director, Movement Cooperation Division of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the work of David Navarro to involve civil society and the United Nations agencies had been effective.  The situation in the Americas remained challenging in that Central and South America had yet to enforce and increase preparedness activities.  There was further need of improvement on the level of regional and global coordination of communication, in addressing together the issue of livelihoods and compensation and in identifying a clearer picture on the specific vulnerabilities during a pandemic. 

    The International Federation welcomed the United Nations system's consolidated action plan pointing out clear objectives and a shared vision and opening further possibilities to cooperation.  The Federation aimed at complementarity of approaches and contingency planning, and noted that more civil society partners who could reach populations (NGOs, religious groups and the private sector) should be engaged in this work.  The International Federation had received funding for its global appeal recently, but more funding was needed as investing in preparedness appeared to be a challenge.

    Interactive Dialogue

    In the context of the interactive debate, delegations asked questions and raised issues such as the need for increased funding; the need to increase international policy cooperation and the coordination, cohesiveness and synergy of the United Nations system; the need to put developing countries first and to provide support to developing their national plans and infrastructure for the situation; the human resource problem for dealing with the issue, in particular in Africa; the essential coordinating role of the United Nations; the issue of migratory species and the need to monitor these; the potentially catastrophic nature of the pandemic; the need to identify the primary sources of infection in order to respond appropriately; the need to mobilize financial, human, and technical resources to deal with the situation; coordination of joint efforts to avoid duplication and the appropriate use of national resources; that separate efforts in separate agencies could make efforts too disparate and how this could be avoided; whether there could be a global early warning system; whether it was possible that the apex of the outbreak had already come and gone; issues related to vaccines including whether there was an international collective demand and fair prices; the evidence showing that incidents could spread easily, including across borders; and the need to provide financial and technical support to the poultry industry, which risked collapse in the case of a pandemic.

    Speaking in the interactive dialogue were the representatives of China, Finland on behalf of the European Union, El Salvador, Russian Federation, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Thailand, United States, Indonesia, Australia, Guinea-Bissau, France, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Turkey.  The representatives of UNEP, UNICEF, and the World Organization for Animal Health also spoke.

    DAVID HARCHARIK, Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), said the information distributed by FAO was compiled from different governmental sources.  He encouraged delegates to consult his organization's website for further information. 

    MARGARET CHAN, Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO), said on the importance of vaccine research and development activity and stockpiles of antivirals, consultations had been organized, and a global action plan to identify the gaps and important priority work on research and development would be issued.  The suggestions of moving to cell-based vaccines and other issues as well as antigen-sparing methodologies were being considered, but these were important issues of supply and demand.  All these issues would be examined, and the global action plan made available, highlighting the cooperation issues with partners.  Donations had been received from Roche.  A containment strategy had also been evolved, and this was the first opportunity of a pandemic giving early warning.  In view of the potential devastating results, there was a moral obligation to attempt a containment strategy that had never been tested before, but would be tried.  A discussion would be held with the United Nations system in order to determine how the containment would be done.

    WHO would put in place a system that was able to do real-time monitoring, following the track of the virus minute by minute, and using a virtual network of experts, as it did during SARS, to do timely assessment and provide timely information.  However, it would not wait for the pandemic to come - based on the best available information, it had already posted 50 updated guidelines on definitions. 

    JOSEPH INGRAM, Special Representative of the World Bank in Geneva, said during the Beijing conference, 1.9 billion dollars had been pledged for the prevention and fight against the disease.  Only one sub-Saharan African country had been reflected with regard to the work on avian influenza in 2005.

    DAVID NABARRO, Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, said the importance of the subject was indicated by the reality that time had run out, and there were still issues that had to be discussed.  Delegates had had a chance to describe what was a worldwide movement of Governments, civil society, scientists, the private sector and many others to ensure the world was able to defeat the threats that were posed by Avian Influenza.  The second report would be issued in December 2006.  All the delegates had pointed out that this was a real threat to the future of humanity, with profound economic and social consequences.  These were threats that were important, but difficult to forecast correctly, threats to human security.  It was the countries that were at the forefront of the fight against Avian Flu. 

    Factors for success included political commitment and international partnership, and it was clear that there was a need to focus primarily on countries that were short of resources and technical backup.  It was important to involve civil society.  Communications had to remain strong, and coordinated 

    communications were vital - more work had to be done on that.  Pandemic readiness was an issue.  Perhaps the greatest interest was whether there would be adequate resources.  Commitments were being dispersed more rapidly, but much work remained to be done in order to mobilize more effectively.  Coordination, both regionally and globally, ensuring increased integration, were also vital.  Complacency should be avoided, as it was a terrible problem for some countries, and it would not go away. 

    Statements under the Coordination Segment

    GALO LARENAS (Ecuador) said Ecuador supported the request by the General Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands to be allowed to participate in the deliberations of the Council.  The Convention had faced a number of problems as its legal status was unclear.  The representatives of the General Secretariat had not been able to speak this morning despite the deliberations coming within its remit.  This was of concern to Ecuador, which had proposed a solution to the legal status of the Convention, and was glad that the General Secretariat was welcomed in this Forum. 

    TERRY MILLER (United States) asked how many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had been accorded ECOSOC status as a whole, and if a list was maintained by the Secretariat.  Was there any particular standard used concerning NGOs?  Were they participating on an ad hoc basis?  Were they given the right to participate on any issue of the Council?  Could they speak any time during the debate like a State?  In order to avoid politicization of the Council's debate, further information on the activities of those NGOs that applied for legal status should be provided before taking any decision.  From the documentation presented by the NGOs, it was impossible to tell about the extent of their membership.

    H. RAUBENHEIMER (South Africa) said the last speaker had made certain suggestions concerning the South Centre, as in that their voice would be better heard through the Group of 77.  The OECD had also been heard in these halls, and therefore the South Centre should also have the right to have its voice heard.

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