Amid bird flu fears, WHO experts urge countries to take action to head off epidemics

Public health experts urged governments Friday to beef up protection against epidemics by boosting vaccine stocks, preparing quarantine plans and other containment measures.

The specter of bird flu loomed large at the four-day World Health Organization conference, designed to recommend ways of meeting international health goals laid out last year.

"The aim was to translate that legal text into operational rules," said Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's top official in charge of monitoring communicable diseases, at the close of the conference in the southeastern city of Lyon.

Adopted last year, the goals call on the WHO's 192 member countries to implement by 2012 changes aimed at heading off possible epidemics before they break out. One key measure would boost health screenings at airports and international borders.

Recommendations included calling on governments to enhance warning systems on epidemics, build stocks of medical equipment and vaccines, and lay out human quarantine plans. It also called on the states to name national liaison officers with the WHO on epidemics.

On Thursday, Robert G. Webster, a leading expert on bird flu, said too many gaps in planning and knowledge persist for the world to handle the deadly H5N1 virus in the event of a pandemic.

Chan warned that bird flu is "a real threat" and called on countries to implement the organization's strict new public health guidelines "as soon as possible."

Members are now to evaluate their public health plans, and report weak areas to the WHO, which in turn promised to develop training guides for countries and direct them on ways to improve national laboratory systems, among other measures.

So far, most human cases have been linked to contact with infected birds, but experts fear the virus will mutate into a form that easily spreads between people, potentially sparking a pandemic, reports AP.


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