Thursday, March 09, 2006

The United Nations System is the World's First Defense Against Avian Influenza

Today, the United Nations formally launched a landmark $500-million fund – with over half that amount already pledged – to jump-start relief operations in future natural and man-made disasters and save thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost to delay under the current under-funded mechanism. This mechanism is part of the reform and reorganization of the United Nations, and no doubt is to some degree a response to the 2004 tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake last year. While it is not intended specifically to respond to the avian flu, it is a mechanism that could be brought to bear. Recall that the 1918 influenza epidemic was so severe in places that they might well have qualified for such emergency assistance, had it existed.

Check out the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) website.

There is some discussion, apparently, as to whether the influenza epidemic in birds is being spread primarily by wild birds or by poultry. In either case, the U.N. system is the first line of protection.

In November the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) announced at an international wildlife conference in Nairobi, Kenya that
An avian flu early warning system, able to alert countries and communities to the arrival of potentially infected wild birds, is to be developed by an alliance of organizations led by the United Nations.

The system will be designed to alert authorities on different continents that migratory water birds are on their way.
The warning system is to be developed by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) with support and funding from the UNEP.

The Organization for Animal Health (OiE, for the French version of its original title) keeps track of wildlife as well as on domestic animal diseases and zoonosis. It also provides expertise and encourages international solidarity in the control of animal diseases, and seeks to safeguard world trade by publishing health standards for international trade in animals and animal products.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a vigorous program against bird flu. The program website provides information on the progression of the disease in poultry. In conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO), FAO has created a Global Strategy for the Progressive Control of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

Of course,WHO represents the first line of global defense against an avian flu epidemic or pandemic in humans. WHO's Avian Influenza website is perhaps the best source for information on human cases of A/H5N1 influenza, and the potential for an epidemic.

These organizations are at the apex of a system of regional and national veterinary and human health organizations, helping to coordinate the direct responses to outbreaks, and to coordinate a global response to the threat.

I wish that more Americans understood how this complex system of United Nations and other multinational organizations functions to protect their health and welfare. This system has its origins in the early 20th century, and was solidified and strengthened after World War II. Thus, it represents the culmination of a century's effort to create institutions strong enough and agile enough to protect the world's population from communicable disease. We are fortunate to have this system in place now, and we should be very careful about any changes that might weaken it.

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