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Influenza Preparedness Must Become Public Health Priority, Experts Say

Mexico, November 9, 2004 (PAHO)—Influenza experts at a Pan American Health Organization technical meeting say that national preparedness plans to confront a potential influenza pandemic must become a "public health priority without delay."

As a highly infectious disease that strikes millions worldwide and causes fatal complications in about 1 million persons every year, influenza has the potential for high social disruption and economic losses. But these can be avoided through systematic vaccination of adults over 60 years of age, people with chronic illnesses and immune deficiencies, pregnant women, and children between 6 and 23 months of age, according to the Technical Advisory Group on Vaccine Preventable Diseases, where more than 200 experts discussed the best ways to control vaccine-preventable diseases.

"The recent SARS epidemics in Asia and North America and the human cases of avian flu in Asia have demonstrated the need for countries to make adequate preparations to deal with highly complex health emergencies, such as that caused by an influenza pandemic," said Dr. Otavio Oliva, a communicable disease expert at the Pan American health Organization (PAHO).

Oliva said PAHO is working with all the countries in the Americas to develop National Influenza Preparedness Plans, but the initiative is still in the preliminary phase. The experts concluded that countries could explore mechanisms to buy influenza vaccine through PAHO's Revolving Fund, which purchases vaccines in bulk for the countries at lower prices.

Experts here are also discussing new vaccines now being tested against Rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea that kills about 15,000 children a year in the Americas, Human Papillomavirus vaccines now under development, HiB vaccines against meningitis, and pneumococcal vaccines.

Dr. Jon K. Andrus, chief of PAHO's immunization unit, said that despite rapid introduction of four underutilized vaccines in the late 1990s, "Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean still lag far behind in the provision of technologies and services that countries such as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and many countries of Europe provide."

"The major challenge for immunization programs in developing countries is to reduce existing inequities while ensuring that expanded services are sustainable" through government financing of programs, especially vaccine purchase, Andrus said.

PAHO's Revolving Fund for Vaccine Purchase, a procurement and financing mechanism which helps countries buy vaccines at lower prices, is one way to ensure "Safe, effective and affordable vaccines are made available to the people who need them most," Andrus said in a document presented at the meeting.

Vaccine successes, such as smallpox and polio eradication, elimination of measles and neonatal tetanus, are now being followed by the plan to eliminate rubella and congenital rubella syndrome in the Americas, Andrus said.

"Vaccines against rotavirus, pneumococcus, and human papilloma virus appear to be new and underutilized vaccines that will make a significant difference to public health. Fast-tracking the introduction of new vaccines while assuring the availability of old ones will be one of the major challenges ahead," Andrus concluded.

Dr. D.A. Henderson, who headed the smallpox eradication program and who was made an honorary member of the National Academy of Medicine by Dr. Julio Frenk, Mexico's Secretary of Health yesterday, gave an update on the global smallpox vaccine situation today, outlining plans for an international stockpile.

Henderson said 400 million doses of smallpox vaccine are available, and the World Health Organization has been asked to develop emergency rapid mobilization plans in case of a terrorist attack involving smallpox virus.

"An outbreak anywhere is a threat to all nations everywhere," Henderson said.

PAHO, established in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and the quality of life of people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization.



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