WHO launches pandemic emergency response centre

After months of testing, the United National public health agency today opened an emergency response centre to head off illnesses that are on the verge of becoming pandemic, such as bird flu and SARS.

Announcing the launch of the facility in Geneva, the World Health Organization's Dr. Michael J. Ryan said: "In an epidemic crisis particularly, rapid, coordinated communication between WHO Member States and headquarters here and the region is vital.

"In SARS, that sort of transparent, regular communication was vital in the fight against that disease. Beyond that, the need to be able to bring together scientists from all over the world, rapidly, in a virtual network, either through audio-visual or computer links, provides us with an ability to get the best minds in the world working on a public health problem immediately."

The $5 million emergency response centre, which will aim to head off pandemics anywhere in the world within 48 hours, first opened in August for trials.

The high-tech centre can be redesigned rapidly and reshaped for use in a variety of emergency scenarios. It has been equipped with dial-up, audio-visual conferencing in three areas, which can operate independently of electricity cuts, a breakdown in telephone systems, or other communication problems.

Dr Ryan said: "We don't need to get people together physically. We can leave lab people working in their labs on the diagnostics. We can leave clinicians working on the frontlines in the hospitals, but we can bring them together virtually to exchange information rapidly during a crisis."

For the last three days experts had been working on the Global Influenza Programme, but the centre's 35 staff could work against the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Ebola, measles or meningitis by mounting "a targeted pubic health response anywhere in the world in 24 to 48 hours," whenever countries requested help, he said.

He showed how the facility could assess the number of vaccine doses against meningitis needed in any of 14 affected West African countries and ship out the correct amounts.


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