May 26, 2006

Countries opt to speed up bird flu reporting rules

By Laura MacInnis

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization's 192
member states on Friday committed themselves to promptly report
any human cases of bird flu to build defenses against a
possible pandemic.

New international health regulations, due to come into
force for all infectious diseases from June 2007, were brought
forward by a year on a voluntary basis for bird flu in light of
growing concerns about the fast-spreading virus.

Experts fear that the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has
already killed 124 people in ten countries, could trigger a
global pandemic if it mutates to pass easily between humans.

The WHO rules, first agreed upon last year, ask countries
to disclose any event "that may constitute a public health
emergency of international concern." Previous regulations had
covered only cholera, plague, yellow fever and smallpox.

Countries are also asked to undertake routine checks at
ports, airports and land borders to help detect and respond
quickly to public health emergencies.

Margaret Chan, the WHO's assistant director-general for
communicable diseases, said making the rules take effect sooner
offered countries "better defense" against health threats that
might otherwise spiral out of control.

Anders Nordstom, who took over the helm of the U.N. health
agency after Director-General Lee Jong-wook's sudden death on
Monday, said bringing the regulations into force was a
"priority both for me and for the organization."

Nordstom said recent attention on new diseases -- sparked
by the appearance of SARS in 2003, and bird flu which
re-emerged in Asia the same year -- had prompted many countries
to apply the standards early.

"In some ways it is already happening, and we expect now
with this decision -- which is more of a political commitment
-- that we will be able to accelerate even more," he told his
first news conference as the United Nations agency's interim

Though bird flu remains principally an animal disease, its
H5N1 strain has infected 213 people, killing more than half of
them, since 2003. More than 30 countries have reported
outbreaks in wild birds or poultry since the start of this

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva)