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World health officials to discuss preparations for possible pandemic

OTTAWA, TORONTO

da is preparing to discuss pandemic preparations with health ministers from around the world, as the human toll from avian flu increased by one yesterday and fears about its potential devastation intensified.

Health ministers and heads of key international organizations will gather in Ottawa next week to discuss ways of strengthening the international response to an anticipated influenza pandemic, which some scientists say may already be developing in the form of the H5N1 avian virus.

That virus, which does not yet appear to be transmissible between humans, claimed another human life in Thailand, where a 48-year-old man died after slaughtering and eating an infected chicken.

The avian flu has caused the deaths or destruction of 150 million birds and killed at least 61 people in Asia since 2003.

"At this time, avian influenza, the H5N1, is the strain that has the most potential to become a serious pandemic," David Butler Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, said yesterday.

"That does not mean that [the next pandemic] will be the H5N1 and, even if it were a derivative of this particular strain, it will have changed. . . . "It will need to develop the ability to spread easily from person to person," he said.

Ian Shugart, an assistant deputy minister with the federal Health Department, said the meeting next week will provide Canada with an opportunity to encourage all countries to collaborate on global pandemic planning.

"Each country depends, to a significant degree, on the preparedness and the ability of every other country to deal with it," he said.

The two-day meeting in Ottawa will bring together, for the first time, ministers of health from 30 countries and senior officials from international organizations including the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health.

They will discuss how to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, including the H5N1 avian virus that is the current focus of global concern, among animals and from animals to humans, Mr. Shugart said.

They will also discuss improving early detection and response to an influenza outbreak, vaccine development and access, and how to ensure accurate and timely sharing of information both before and during a pandemic.

A Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan has been developed with the input of more than 200 experts and officials, said Dr. Butler Jones.

"We have taken action already on a number of key initiatives that have been mapped out in the plan including active surveillance in hospitals for novel respiratory diseases, the national anti-viral stockpile, managing the emergency stockpile system and establishing a contract for a domestic vaccine production," he said.

In Ontario, Michael Gardam, director of infection control and prevention at Toronto's University Health Network told UHN staff that if a pandemic struck 35 per cent of Ontario's population, it would kill more than 11,000 people in a period of eight to 12 weeks and hospitalize 51,000 others.

A further 4.2 million Ontarians would fall ill but would not need hospitalization, he predicted.

Dr. Gardam said in an interview yesterday that the health-care system would be overwhelmed by such a severe flu outbreak.

"The vast majority are not going to die but we have to plan how we are going to look after them."

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