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[NEW DELHI] Many countries continue to be plagued by poor bird flu surveillance and diagnosis capacity, and weak national preparedness plans, experts have warned.

The third global progress report of the United Nations System Influenza Coordination (UNSIC) and the World Bank is released this month (December). It warns that the risk of global influenza pandemic is as great in late 2007 as it was in mid-2005, when the first cases began to emerge.

Based on data from 146 countries, the report was circulated at an international ministerial conference on bird flu, in New Delhi, India this week (4 December).

Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general and Jacques Diouf, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization director-general, stressed the continuing threat of bird flu at the meeting.

"The next pandemic will occur through adaptive mutations [in the virus]. We have no idea when and how the pandemic will occur, or whether this high case fatality rate of 61 per cent in humans will be maintained," said Chan.

Diouf warned that the international community would have to prepare for bird flu and other major health crises of animal origin, worsened by climate change and the increased risk of pathogens travelling over large distances in a very short period, due to modern air travel.  

Investments are needed to focus on prevention at the source — animals — and in developing countries, he added.

Although many countries report they have developed national preparedness plans, their preparedness for a pandemic is "patchy", and there is insufficient attention to sectors other than health and their operational aspects, said David Nabarro, senior UN system coordinator for avian and human influenza

He added that capacity in diagnosis and surveillance is insufficient in many countries and regions, particularly Africa, and overall veterinary capacity in most countries remains "substandard."

Chan cautioned that national preparedness for an influenza pandemic must extend beyond the health and agricultural sectors and take into account maintenance of essential services such as food and transportation.

The report also recommends strong political and financial commitments from international agencies and donors, especially for long-term technical assistance and integrated multi-sectoral country programmes to tackle bird flu.

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