May 14, 2009 / 11:03 AM / 9 years ago

Pandemic flu to dominate WHO assembly


* Flu fears cut World Health Assembly to five days from nine

* Tuberculosis, food safety, fake drugs dropped from agenda

* WHO says health ministers needed at home for H1N1 virus

* Officials from 193 countries expected in Geneva



By Laura MacInnis

GENEVA, May 14 (Reuters) - H1N1 flu will dominate the World Health Organisation's annual assembly of 193 countries next week, eclipsing other issues like tuberculosis and food safety.

The emergence and spread of the new virus caused WHO Director-General Margaret Chan to declare that a global pandemic is imminent, and public health officials are watching it closely in case it mutates and causes severe symptoms as it spreads.

The annual World Health Assembly in Geneva was due to run from May 18-27 but is now likely to last five days so health ministers can get home to deal with the virus.

In a memo circulated to WHO staff, and obtained by Reuters, the United Nations agency said it will propose at the assembly's opening session that the meeting end "no later than Friday 22 May" and postpone discussion on several topics to 2010.

"The reason for shortening the duration of the assembly is to reduce the time ministers and senior health officials might expect to be away from their countries this year, in view of the need to coordinate national efforts being undertaken with regard to the current outbreak of influenza A-H1N1," the memo said.

Issues to be postponed include international chemicals management, drug-resistant tuberculosis, food safety, viral hepatitis, counterfeit medical products, human organ and tissue transplantation, chagas disease, and the WHO's role and responsibilities in health research.



VACCINE SHIFT

Delegates will instead focus on the world's readiness for a H1N1 pandemic and efforts to ensure developing countries can get the antiviral drugs they need to fight the hybrid flu that scientists say is a mix of swine, bird and human viruses.

Vaccine development will be a major topic. Chan will hold meetings with pharmaceutical executives to discuss a shift in production to H1N1 vaccines from, or alongside, those for seasonal flu. The WHO is hosting a preparatory conference call on that topic on Thursday.

Many experts are recommending the continued development of seasonal flu vaccine given that the more common virus kills up to 500,000 people a year. The elderly and people with other health problems such as asthma appear most susceptible to pneumonia and other severe symptoms from both flu viruses.

A new pandemic vaccine could be added to the seasonal flu jab mix or made separately.

Mexico's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva has said his country would also raise concerns at the meeting about what he said were "discriminatory" measures imposed in response to the flu outbreak, such as forced quarantines and trade bans.

Mexico is considered the epicentre of the H1N1 strain, with 60 confirmed deaths from the infection. The United States has had three deaths, and Canada and Costa Rica one each.

Elsewhere, the virus appears to be causing milder symptoms, similar to those with the seasonal flu. The WHO has confirmed more than 6,000 infections in 33 countries worldwide including New Zealand, Israel, Sweden and Cuba.

It is not recommending travel or trade restrictions due to the outbreak and has said most patients can recover without drugs, though severe cases can be treated with antivirals like Roche's ROG.VX Tamiflu or GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK.L) Relenza.

At least 20 companies worldwide make flu vaccines, including Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA), Novartis NOVN.VX, Baxter International (BAX.N), Australia's CSL (CSL.AX), and nasal spray maker MedImmune, now part of AstraZeneca (AZN.L).

Taiwan will attend the WHO assembly. China agreed earlier this month to allow it to accept an invitation. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and the issue of its attendance has distracted officials from health issues in previous years. (Editing by Janet Lawrence) (For more Reuters stories on swine flu, click on [nFLU]) (For more Reuters swine flu coverage, please click here: here ) (For WHO information on swine flu, go to: here )



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