WHO names experts who will advise when pandemic risk appears to be rising

(Sep. 25, 2006) The World Health Organization has announced the membership of the panel of experts it will turn to for advice if it believes the threat of a flu pandemic is mounting.

The list of 20 or so international disease experts includes leading avian influenza expert Dr. Robert Webster of St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. Ab Osterhaus, a veterinary virologist at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and Dr. Nancy Cox, director of the influenza division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Dr. Theresa Tam, director of the Public Health Agency of Canada's respiratory infections division, is also on the committee, which convened for the first time Monday in Geneva.

The panel's mandate is to advise the director general of the WHO whenever it appears that there has been a change in the risk of a flu pandemic emerging. This group would review the evidence on patterns of infection and possible human-to-human spread and issue a recommendation on whether it believes it is time to change the pandemic staging level.

The final decision on whether to move up - or down - the pandemic alert ladder rests with the director general.

The WHO's pandemic phasing document is a six-step scale from no known pandemic threat (Phase 1) to a full-blown pandemic (Phase 6). The WHO's current assessment is that the world is in Phase 3 - a novel flu virus that has pandemic potential is causing sporadic human cases but only very limited human-to-human spread.

Evidence of some clustering of cases of human infections of H5N1 avian flu virus in Indonesia and elsewhere this year has led to questions from some quarters about whether the WHO ought to raise the pandemic alert level to Phase 4, characterized as "evidence of increased human-to-human transmission."

This new committee would be the body that would advise on that issue, if asked. But Monday's meeting was not called for that purpose, WHO officials have said. Instead, this meeting is a chance for the experts to hammer out a procedural framework for future deliberations.

Membership is drawn from the six administrative regions of the World Health Organization: Africa, the Americas, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Pacific.

Other members of the task force include Dr. Maria Zambon from Britain's public health agency; Dr. Martin Cetron, head of the global migration and quarantine division at the CDC; Masato Tashiro, director of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases; and Russian virologist Dmitri Lvov. (from The Canadian Press)


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