(For other news from Reuters Health Summit, click here)
* CDC head concerned at WHO ability to respond effectively
* Swiss-based U.N. agency hit by Swiss franc strength
* WHO official says work being done but donor support vital
By Ben Hirschler
NEW YORK, May 6 The World Health Organization's
ability to police the new strain of bird flu that has killed 27
people in China is being jeopardized by budget cuts, according
to a top U.S. official.
"One of the things that, frankly, concerns us is the ability
of WHO to respond effectively," Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of
the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the
Reuters Health Summit in New York on Monday.
Frieden said he planned to raise the issue with other
countries at the World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting, which is
being held in Geneva, where the U.N. agency has its
headquarters, from May 20 to May 28.
Many scientific questions still have to be answered about
the new flu strain, known as H7N9, which first caused patients
to sicken in China in February having been previously unknown in
So far, researchers have established it is being transmitted
to people from birds - probably mostly chickens. There is no
evidence of it spreading from person to person.
The WHO plays a central role in coordinating the global
response to such emerging disease threats, but it is struggling
in the face of budget cuts that were forced on it two years ago,
partly as a result of a strong appreciation in the Swiss franc.
"They had trouble sending a team to China for H7 because
they didn't have enough money to travel," Frieden said. "They
are managing and we will help them manage - and will send staff
there as needed - but the world needs them to be effective."
Taiwan reported its first case of H7N9 on April 24 and
health experts say it is critical to monitor closely the new
strain's potential to spread in neighbouring countries.
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for
health security, said the organization was carrying out the work
that needed to be done but the operation, involving more than 50
staff, was "very expensive".
"We need the gas tank to be full if the car is going to
move. We've already been working with donors in terms of
response and funds for support," he said in a telephone
interview in Geneva.
There will be a side event on H7N9 during the WHA meeting on
May 21 where both Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, and
he will speak, along with the Chinese health minister, Fukuda
The U.N. health agency, which helped eliminate smallpox in
the late 1970s, co-ordinated worldwide efforts to deal with the
H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009/10.
It receives the bulk of its funding in dollars, leaving it
exposed to currency fluctuations. It was forced in 2011 to cut
300 jobs in Switzerland - or one in eight - because of the
strength of the Swiss franc and financial problems in some donor
"They've had to lay off hundreds of staff in Geneva and in
other parts of the world, including in areas that are quite
relevant to flu response," Frieden said.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing
by Carol Bishopric)