April 26, 2009 / 3:18 PM / in 8 years

WHO's "war room" in high gear after flu outbreaks

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Strategic Health Operations Center -- nicknamed the ”SHOC room“ or war room” -- has kicked into high gear, staffed round-the-clock by experts fighting a new flu virus spreading in Mexico and the United States.

The World Health Organisation’s nerve center for tracking epidemics and coordinating a response became fully operational on Thursday night as the first reports of multiple deaths emerged.

Mike Ryan, an Irish doctor and public health expert serving as WHO director of global alert and response, is in charge of the high-tech, windowless facility which has no natural light.

“We are in full ‘24-7’ operation at the moment. More than 100 people are directly involved in the response,” Ryan told Reuters during a brief break on Sunday.

“We are working to build up a picture so we can have data around the virus’ impact on human beings and how it can be treated and prevented,” he said.

The state-of-the-art hub has become the global command center for combating the new flu strain which has killed up to 81 people in Mexico and infected a dozen in the United States.

Experts in disease surveillance, communications, laboratory testing, field support, information management and vaccines are currently deployed in 12-hour shifts in the former cinema at WHO’s headquarters in Geneva.

In constant touch with health authorities in the two countries, its sophisticated communications systems and screens collect and transmit vital data on the outbreaks. They also monitor other countries for any unusual disease patterns.

SARS LESSONS

Former WHO director-general Lee Jong-Wook had ordered the agency’s small operations center revamped after the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus emerged in Asia in 2003 and then jumped continents, killing some 800 people globally before being brought under control,

Built in 2004 at a cost of $5 million, the new center was later named after Lee, who died suddenly after a blood clot on the brain in 2006.

It is designed as a single point of global coordination to try to contain outbreaks of both traditional and emerging diseases ranging from cholera, dengue fever, Ebola, bird flu to

SARS.

It has screens for video-conferences and displaying Web sites and satellite feeds. Computers transmit audio, video and other data from WHO offices in all 193 member states.

WHO head Margaret Chan said on Saturday the new virus could spread to other countries and has pandemic potential. She urged health authorities worldwide to be on high alert for suspect cases of flu-like illness or severe pneumonia.

“We need data from everybody for a global risk assessment. Are we moving to a pandemic? If so, we need to know how bad. A lot is based on understanding the virus transmission mechanism, clinical severity and efficacy of antivirals,” Ryan, 44, said.

“We learned our lesson in SARS when everybody worked 24 hours a day and people burned out. We have much more surge capacity now.”

“This is a marathon at sprint pace. You have to run, but the seriousness of the public health event determines our pace. At the same time, whatever pace you establish has to be sustainable.”

Editing by Angus MacSwan

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