Africa far from ready for flu pandemic


Africa is “far from being ready” for a pandemic of H1N1 flu, and developing countries in Asia and Latin America will need help accessing life-saving drugs and vaccines, top health officials say

Addressing the World Health Organisation’s annual congress, Tonga‘s health minister said it was lucky the H1N1 strain had spread first to affluent countries such as the United States, Canada, Spain, Britain and Japan, Reuters reports.

“Somehow, somebody decided to start this epidemic in very rich countries … This helped all of us,” said Health Minister Viliami Tangi. Poor countries lack the medical staff, laboratories, drug stockpiles, and vaccine-making capacity to deal with the outbreak in a sophisticated manner, he said.

And Nigeria‘s delegate said African countries would face major difficulties responding to an outbreak of H1N1 flu, which has caused mild symptoms in most patients but may be especially threatening to people with HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

“We are far from being ready. The continent is in dire need of support,” he told a high-level session at the UN offices in Geneva. “We on the African continent are very worried.”

Thailand appealed for support to Mexico, the epicentre of the newly-discovered virus that has killed 74 people, on the opening day of the World Health Assembly where fears about flu eclipsed most other issues.

The virus has spread to 40 countries and put the world on the brink of pandemic, according to the WHO, whose labs have confirmed nearly 9000 infections. Its emergence has raised questions about supply of antiviral drugs and pandemic vaccines.

“An influenza pandemic is an extreme expression of the need for solidarity before a shared threat,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said.

“I strongly urge you to look closely at anything and everything we can do, collectively, to prevent developing countries from, once again, bearing the brunt of a global contagion,” she told the World Health Assembly.

Health experts fear the onset of winter in the southern hemisphere could provide fertile ground for the new strain to spread in poor countries as the region deals with seasonal flu.

Thailand‘s delegate said the global financial crisis should not prevent developed countries and pharmaceutical companies ensuring poorer countries have access to antiviral medicines like Roche’s Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline’s Relenza.

Sri Lankan health minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, president of this year’s WHO assembly, said he hoped officials in Geneva would reach a deal about how vaccine makers should treat samples of viruses they use to make H1N1 jabs.

Developing nations such as Indonesia have in the past protested at moves to use the biological specimens to make patented injections that are sold at unaffordable rates.

“We should make sure that we make a just and fair resolution of this issue,” Siripala de Silva said.

Both Canada and the United States pledged to help poorer countries cope with the strain as it continues to spread, both through cash donations to the WHO and technical assistance to countries needing diagnostic or other help.

“Viruses know no borders,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Geneva meeting.

Pakistan said it has put together a $3.6 million pandemic preparedness plan to cover its surveillance, communication and antiviral drug needs, and said it has received help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention