Vaccine makers, governments to discuss threat of outbreak
The Associated Press
Updated: 12:30 a.m. ET Nov. 1, 2004
WASHINGTON – The World Health Organization has called an unprecedented summit meeting of flu vaccine makers and nations to expand plans for dealing with the growing threat of a flu pandemic.
Sixteen vaccine companies and health officials from the United States and other large countries already have agreed to attend the summit next week in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 11, said Klaus Stohr, influenza chief of the United Nations’ health agency.
With increasing signs that bird flu is becoming established in Asia and several worrisome human cases that can’t be linked directly to exposure to infected poultry, it’s only a matter of time until such a virus adapts itself to spread more easily from person to person and cause a severe worldwide outbreak, he said.
“We believe that we are closer to the next pandemic than we ever were,” Stohr said Sunday in an interview before a speech at an American Society for Microbiology meeting in Washington, D.C.
The world’s total capacity for flu vaccine now is only 300 million doses, and it would take at least six months to develop a new vaccine to fight a pandemic. The WHO wants to get “all issues on the table,” monetary and scientific, that prevent getting more vaccine more quickly, he said.
“If we continue as we are now, there will be no vaccine available, let alone antivirals, when the next pandemic starts,” Stohr said. “We have a window of opportunity now to prepare ourselves.”
Pandemic could threaten millions. Flu kills about 36,000 people in the United States and a million worldwide each year by conservative estimates, Stohr said. But tens of millions die in a pandemic, which occurs every 20 to 30 years, when a flu strain changes so dramatically that people have little immunity from previous flu bouts.
There were three pandemics in the 20th century; all spread worldwide within a year of being detected.
The worst was the Spanish flu in 1918-19, when as many as 50 million people worldwide were thought to have died, nearly half of them young, healthy adults. More than 500,000 died in the United States.
The 1957-58 Asian flu caused about 70,000 deaths in the United States, followed by the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu, which caused about 34,000 U.S. deaths.