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U.N. may use 'flu-casters' if pandemic strikes

The United Nations is considering using “flu-casters”, modeled on television weather forecasters, to publicize vital information if a global flu pandemic strikes.
/ Source: Reuters

The United Nations is considering using “flu-casters”, modeled on television weather forecasters, to publicize vital information if a global flu pandemic strikes.

They could broadcast latest developments from emergency-response facilities at the U.N.’s World Health Organization in Geneva, according to David Nabarro, the U.N.’s top influenza coordinator.

“The flu-casters would draw out the maps and keep people engaged at regular intervals ... beaming it from the WHO bunker,” Nabarro told Reuters in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The WHO’s Geneva bunker, a $5 million facility built in a former cinema, is the world’s nerve-center for tracking bird flu and other deadly diseases.

The room will become a global command center if the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed at least 83 people in Asia since 2003, mutates into a form which spreads easily among humans and sparks a flu pandemic which could kill millions.

The screen-filled bunker could link the “flu-casters” with TV networks via satellite feeds.

Nabarro was speaking as the United Nations analyzed results from a top-level catastrophe simulation to set policies that envisage governments, companies and the media working together to fight a global flu pandemic.

The exercise has produced surprising conclusions that could prove key should the disease start to spread quickly among humans.

Higher priority
One of the most important conclusions was that maintaining infrastructure -- water, power and the provision of food --could take a higher priority than providing care to the sick, Nabarro told Reuters.

“It is maybe even more important to concentrate on the essentials of life for those who are living than it is to focus on the treatment of those who are sick,” he said. “We learned a lot.”

A pandemic could see travel and trade halted, workers forced to stay home, schools closed and a number of other dramatic measures designed to limit the spread.

The U.N. aims to forge fixed partnerships with key actors who would be involved in any pandemic response effort, which would include community groups, aid groups like the Red Cross, businesses and the media, Nabarro said.

“The focus on business is important. They have skills and can do things that governments cannot,” he said. Clear communications would also be crucial.

The simulation assumed that the world was 40 days into the outbreak of a deadly pandemic.

“What became clear to us was, if we don’t work together effectively and get prepared, we will be badly hit by that pandemic,” he said.

The pandemic preparations will call for novel approaches if officials are to limit the potential catastrophic damage -- such as the use of mobile phone technology to distribute questionnaires and information, Nabarro said.

Nabarro also warned there was still a lot of work to be done in the event of an outbreak.

“Governments are starting to realize that they are nowhere near prepared for the damage that it could cause,” he said at a panel discussion.