Flu outbreaks demonstrate that pandemics are a serious threat

The World Bank, a provider of financial assistance to developing countries, said on Tuesday that reports of worldwide H5N1 avian flu outbreaks show that pandemics can pose a serious threat to public health.

Health and agricultural experts with the World Bank said that the prevention of pandemics should be a global health priority. Francois Le Gall, a livestock advisor for the organization, said the next major pandemic could be zoonotic and would have significant implications in the developing world.

"This is a formidable development issue, where the poorest, who often live closest to livestock or hunt wildlife for food, are most at risk," Le Gall said. "Not only is animal disease costly to farmers, but it also affects nutrition, poverty, food security, and trade, and in the case of zoonoses public health."

Le Gall said that to reduce the chances that a pandemic will spread, disease outbreaks must be detected early, diagnosed properly and controlled effectively with strong veterinary and public health systems.

"This will help stop contagion at the animal source and keep costs down," Le Gall said. "Every country needs to have such systems since a global network of defenses is only as strong as the weakest link."

The World Bank said that $3.4 billion will be needed to achieve strong veterinary and public health systems in developing nations, compared with the current worldwide contribution of $450 million. A report by the organization argued that the investment would more than pay for itself with at least $37 billion in annual expected benefits from prevented pandemics and other major outbreaks.

Maryse Pierre-Louis, a lead health specialist with World Bank, said that significant disease control capacity gaps remain in many developing countries, particularly in veterinary services.

Through increased funding, developing nations may be able to better connect systems, professions and disciplines to reduce the risks of pandemics around the world.