UN chief: $1B needed against swine flu

July 6, 2009 2:05:27 PM PDT
The United Nations may need more than $1 billion this year to help poor countries fight the global swine flu epidemic, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday.Ban said the money is needed to ensure that poor countries get some vaccine doses and antivirals if the global epidemic continues to spread. But he could not provide exact details on how the $1 billion would be spent.

"The funding has not been flowing as we have been expecting," Ban told reporters. "We are now mobilizing all resources possible."

Since the World Health Organization declared swine flu to be a pandemic, or global epidemic, last month, experts have worried about the virus' impact on developing countries.

For the moment, swine flu is mild and most people recover without needing treatment. But the virus could have a more devastating impact in countries where populations are fighting other health problems like AIDS, pneumonia, malaria and tuberculosis.

World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan told potential donors that she wants to start a minimum stockpile of vaccines to 49 of the world's least developed countries as a first step. She did not name the countries.

"Many of the developing countries have weak health systems," said Chan. "They actually go into this pandemic what I call empty-handed. They don't have antivirals. They don't have vaccines. They don't have antibiotics."

Many rich countries like Britain, Canada and France have stockpiles of the antiviral Tamiflu, as well as orders for pandemic vaccine to cover their entire populations. The vast majority of developing countries have no such plans. WHO has a small stockpile of Tamiflu donated by Roche for developing countries.

In May, the U.N. asked vaccine producers to reserve a portion of their pandemic vaccine production for poor countries. Some companies have agreed to help. GlaxoSmithKline PLC offered to donate 50 million doses of pandemic vaccine to WHO for distribution to developing countries.

Chan said she estimated that covering about 5 percent of a country's population would be reasonable for vaccine stockpiles to make sure that doctors, nurses and other health care workers are protected. But she also gave no detailed cost estimates.

"We hope to mobilize some funds to procure commodities, including antibiotics, antivirals and vaccines to countries," Chan said.

Some 429 people have died of swine flu and over 94,000 have been infected, according to the latest totals by the WHO. But experts fear the number of infected people may be much higher than those confirmed.

Last week, Britain's health minister said the country faces a projected 100,000 new swine flu cases a day by the end of August. Britain is the hardest-hit nation in Europe amid the global swine flu epidemic, but officials say they have secured vaccines for the country's entire population.

At an EU health conference, Sweden's health minister said Monday that countries must prepare for a second wave of infections that could be deadlier than the current outbreak.

There is a risk the virus could mutate and spread rapidly as European children return to school in the fall, Maria Larsson said in Jonkoping, Sweden.

"We have to plan for the worst, and hope for the best," she said. "We should have the preparedness to be able to handle, not just a mild form but also a more powerful form."

The EU ministers decided Monday to hold an extra meeting in October to determine joint measures for tackling the rapid spread of swine flu, including possible financial support to help some member states buy vaccines.