Wednesday, September 20, 2006

WHO Chief: Bird Flu Funds Still Needed

WHO Chief: Bird Flu Funds Still Needed

By MARGIE MASON
The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 19, 2006; 3:41 PM



AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The World Health Organization still lacks half the funds it needs to help countries fight bird flu as more human cases are expected in the coming months, the acting director-general said Tuesday.

WHO needs $90 million to $100 million over a two-year period, but has only received about half that amount, Anders Nordstrom told The Associated Press.

"We have still not been able to fill the gap. There's still a shortfall," Nordstrom said. "We still are able to respond when there are outbreaks, but to be able to really work with countries to build up good surveillance systems and information systems, we do need more resources."

He said individual countries also need to come up with more funding to help strengthen surveillance and rapid-response systems within their borders.

International donors in January pledged $1.9 billion in Beijing to help fight bird flu and prepare for a pandemic, but only a portion of that money has been disbursed.

Nordstrom spoke on the sidelines of the weeklong annual WHO Western Pacific regional meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, which brings together health officials from across the Asia-Pacific to set the organization's strategic agenda for coming years.

Bird flu has remained a top item on the meeting's agenda for the third straight year. Experts fear the H5N1 virus will mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a pandemic. So far, most human cases have been linked to contact with infected birds.

As the cooler months approach, Nordstrom said another spate of poultry outbreaks and human infections will likely emerge, but added that many countries have made great strides to combat the virus.

"I think we will see the same pattern," he said. "If we look back three years, we have had a peak starting in January and February, and what has changed over the last three years is that we have seen cases in more and more countries, both in birds and in human beings."

Representatives from nearly 20 countries pledged their support and vowed to continue working together to prepare for a worst-case scenario, with several Pacific island nations requesting help in monitoring migratory birds.

Singapore Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said his city-state has already held two practice drills and he encouraged more countries to set up mock events.

"I think almost certainly if there were to be a crisis, very likely it would originate from our part of the world," he said. "So our region should really be exemplary in showing the rest of the world how you can avoid this crisis and should it happen, how to minimize it."

The H5N1 virus has killed at least 144 people since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003.

On Tuesday, delegates also tackled the topic of chronic ailments such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, which are the world's No. 1 killers, causing 35 million deaths a year _ 60 percent of all deaths worldwide. Globally, 1 billion people are overweight or obese, according to the WHO.

"What we have before us is an overwhelming pandemic of chronic diseases," said Robert Beaglehole, director of the WHO's Geneva-based chronic diseases department. "It used to be thought that these were conditions of rich people and rich countries, but now we know in fact that 80 percent of all deaths from chronic disease occur in low- and middle-income countries."

Just as countries taxed tobacco and decreased advertising, governments can do the same for sugary drinks and fatty foods, he said. Children and teenagers also can be offered healthy foods in school and be encouraged to exercise.

At the meeting, top health officials demonstrated their commitment to fighting obesity and chronic disease by working out to an exercise video played on the conference-room screen.

Non-communicable diseases are blamed for seven out of every 10 deaths among the Western Pacific region's 1.8 billion people.

"It is crucial that we not just talk about this issue _ that we walk the talk," said Australian Health Secretary Jane Halton. "We are the department of health, and we should practice what we preach."

© 2006 The Associated Press

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