Urgency needed in pandemic preparation: U.S. official

HANOI (Reuters) - The task of preparing for flu pandemics remains urgent, and the world must guard against complacency in the wake of the H1N1 outbreak, which appears less deadly than a potential bird flu pandemic, a U.S. health official said.

A medical assistant holds up a H1N1 flu shot at the Health Ministry in Algiers December 29, 2009. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

Participants in a ministerial conference on influenza in Hanoi, “felt the need to re-commit” to the effort, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones said on Wednesday.

About 17,000 people have died from laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 but the World Health Organization, which declared the H1N1 flu a pandemic last June, has said the real death toll is likely to be many times higher.

Initial fears that the pandemic would kill millions have turned out to be unfounded so far. Orders for vast quantities of vaccines are being renegotiated.

Experts, however, fear that if the more deadly H5N1 bird flu virus mutates to become easily transmissible between humans it could lead to such a pandemic.

“We still continue to be in a period of urgency,” Jones told a news conference.

“There was some sense that when a pandemic did occur it was H1N1 and we were lucky, even though there was loss of life, which is always tragic, it was not as tragic or as virulent as H5N1 could be,” she later added.

“The sense is that that event may have led to some sense of: we’re over-reacting, we’re over-preparing.” The tone and message from the conference about re-commitment was: “Let’s not slip into complacency,” she said.

Health officials meeting in Hanoi agreed to work toward more robust and better coordinated surveillance and response systems, and urged countries and international agencies to remain vigilant about H5N1, H1N1 and other flu virus threats, a statement said.

H5N1 avian influenza still appears in a handful of countries, including Vietnam, and Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Bui Ba Bong said the government hoped to eradicate it within two or three years.

Reporting by John Ruwitch; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani