[Viewpoint] New flu a test for best laid plans

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[Viewpoint] New flu a test for best laid plans

The World Health Organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is under the gun. Korea’s Minister for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, Jeon Jae-hee, and health ministers from 193 nations as well as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are headed there for the annual meeting of world health ministers amid a growing crisis of (A)H1N1 influenza viral infections.

Winter has come in the Southern Hemisphere, and the new influenza strain is spreading. The WHO and six regional offices are moving stockpiles of anti-virus drugs, including Tamiflu, to 70 developing nations. Still every day, the number of confirmed (A)H1N1 patients and deaths are being reported to the Lee Jong-wook briefing room, the crisis center created by the late WHO director-general.

The organization has acted quickly. It took only three days to recruit experts - a process that usually would take 18 months. The WHO decided on Saturday to invite Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a leader in managing the 2003 SARS outbreak, who signed a contract on Monday and was immediately sent to the crisis center.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan visits the center daily. She delivered video conference speeches at the UN General Assembly on May 2 and the health ministers’ meeting for ASEAN plus Three on May 8. The WHO also decided to cut short its nine-day annual conference of health ministers to five days, starting May 18.

The ministers agreed to discuss the WHO budget and other pragmatic measures, while passing political and diplomatic negotiations to next year’s meeting. The change was meant to allow each country to concentrate its efforts on fighting the flu crisis.

In contrast to past history, we are coping with the pandemic of influenza very well. Since the days when Lee Jong-wook was its leader, the WHO, in cooperation with the OIE (the World Organization for Animal Health), has fought against the H5N1 [bird flu] virus to protect both humans and animals.

Since the late WHO director-general had anticipated this situation, he pushed forward the establishment of international health regulations and urged each nation to make plans to counter a possible influenza pandemic. Lee had also worked to increase vaccine production and the stockpile of anti-virus drugs. Lee’s policies were upheld by his successor, Chan, and the amount of vaccine production was enormously increased.

The international community is highly aware of the situation and the public has enough understanding about necessary measures, such as quarantines. The WHO is also cooperating with other UN agencies. UN Secretary General Ban has invited vaccine makers from around the world to Geneva.

It is possible to speculate that Ban and Chan will urge them to further increase production and donate the drugs to developing nations.

Because a disease can easily cross borders, it’s never possible for a nation to perfectly control the situation. Health ministers are probably feeling extremely pressured. It is impossible to predict how the (A)H1N1 virus will mutate and how the situation will unfold.

It is the WHO’s stance that all nations must work to stop the virus from entering their countries. The WHO also believes that once the virus enters a country, the government must do its best to stop its spread, while refraining from unnecessary economic and social restrictions unless there is a scientific basis that the action will help public health.

It is also important to monitor the new influence of H5N1 at the same time. If the H5N1 virus mutates into a stronger strain, it would be a disaster.

Korea was a model for countering the SARS outbreak in 2003. Since then, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was established and Korea’s response to the new influenza outbreak has been successful.

The WHO is praising Korea’s example. And yet, Korea’s lead has been somewhat muted in the international community.

While each nation’s sovereignty is respected, the roles of the international organizations, such as the WHO and UN, were emphasized in the international community. Recently the New York Times called WHO Director-General Chan perhaps the most powerful international public health official in history.

In Geneva, Korea is known as a country that fields a new health minister every year for the annual conference. With such frequent changes, it will be hard for Korea to become a world leader.

Korea’s health minister must have bilateral talks with many counterparts in the WHO. She should also meet with her counterparts in Japan and China for a three-way talks. She should promote Korea’s achievements to the world and create opportunities to support developing countries. By doing so, Korea will be able to provide assistance to other nations and become a leader in the international health community.

*The writer is a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of Public Health. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Sohn Myung-sei
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