The US State Department has called a meeting of 80 national and international agencies to co-ordinate a response to the growing threat of avian flu, in the hope of containing a pandemic that could lead to millions of deaths. “As a global community, if we fail to act decisively, the repercussions will be significant on many levels,” stressed Mike Johanns, US Secretary of Agriculture.

This International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza is calling for international cooperation in combating the virus, which is already taking hold in some parts of the world and has the capacity to destroy trade, tourism, and commerce, as well as having an inevitable human toll. The United Nations has predicted mortality rates between 5 and 150 million when – not if – the next pandemic occurs, but the World Health Organisation is more cautious, putting its estimates at between 2 and 7.5 million.

Participants at the meeting heard about the need to share information, to promote awareness of the issue, to establish a means whereby cases of avian flu can be reported to the relevant authorities, and to develop treatments and vaccines to stem the pandemic. Added Johanns: “We need to identify and commit resources, develop and implement action plans, and coordinate information sharing between countries and across the human and animal health sectors.”

Governments around the world are amassing stocks of flu drugs and vaccines in anticipation of a major flu outbreak. Usually occurring every two to four decades, the last, relatively minor pandemic took place in the late 1960s, leading to speculation that the next could occur at any time. Currently, the USA is hoping to lay in a stockpile of around 40 million doses of pandemic flu vaccine, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. To this end, the government most recently awarded a major $100 million contract to Sanofi-Aventis for a vaccine based on the H5N1 strain [[16/09/05a]].