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Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health
Conference : Influenza at the interface between humans and animals
Brussels, 30 October 2009.
Ladies and gentlemen
I am delighted to be with you today to open this conference on influenza at the interface between humans and animals.
This event takes place within the framework of the EU Veterinary Week, organised together with the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe to promote the concept of "One health", to emphasise that animal health affects human health and vice-versa.
We are all acutely aware of the link between animal health and public health and the importance of the veterinary and medical sectors working in a coordinated way to minimise the damage that can be caused.
Influenza virus genes migrate across continents and animal species, and assemble themselves in combinations which can pose a threat to animal and human health.
This global threat is starkly illustrated by the current pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza.
The study of the genetics of the H1N1 influenza virus has shown us that we are dealing with an international virus with genes from several continents embedded in its structure.
It also has an interesting genetic make-up, in the sense that it is composed by genes from three species: avian, porcine and human.
Apart from the global origin of the virus, it is also one that has spread across the globe in under a week, and is capable of affecting different species.
However, it should be emphasised that the current H1N1 pandemic is primarily a human disease and pigs become infected through contact with infected people.
In this respect, it is highly important to implement biosecurity measures, to prevent animals from becoming infected after exposure to infected humans, and vice versa.
In order to minimise the negative impact of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza, close coordination at global and regional level of all related sectors affected by the pandemic is therefore essential. These measures should include better coordinated disease surveillance strategies.
This crisis has shown that efficient channels for exchanging information are in place to support good cooperation and coordination efforts at European level and beyond.
The European Commission is committed to supporting third countries to respond to this crisis.
We will be working with these countries, and in particular developing countries, on issues relating to public and animal health. For example: the availability of and access to vaccines; strengthening healthcare capacities; and reinforcing general preparedness, while respecting the principles of aid effectiveness and country ownership.
We will also need to strengthen the capacity of veterinary services worldwide to monitor for this virus in animal populations.
To ensure a coherent global public health response, the EU is also closely collaborating with international organisations such as the World Organisation for Animal Health, the World Health Organisation, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
It is for this reason that we have invited distinguished experts from these international organisations to participate in today's conference.
Permanent cooperation in the field of surveillance between Veterinary Services and Public Health authorities is also vital.
Inter-sectoral action will need to remain a key component in tackling pandemic (H1N1) 2009. An important dimension of responses to a pandemic at any level is that they must be multi-sectoral, encompassing services from the public health sector, the animal health sector and the food safety sector.
In line with our Animal Health Strategy, with its central theme of “Prevention is better than cure”, we need to take a proactive approach to prevent the emergence of other influenza viruses with pandemic potential.
To do so will require a better understanding of the underlying factors that most strongly contribute to the emergence of influenza viruses, and further development of methods to assess what risk such viruses may pose to people.
Surveillance capacity tools and monitoring processes should be developed at international level, and should aim to improve data quality and data comparability.
Surveillance for the pandemic virus should focus on timely detection of the virus in humans and animal populations.
It should also aim to improve our understanding of the risk of virus circulation, its possible impact on animal and public health and to facilitate the monitoring of its further evolution.
Let me now turn to another important prevention measure in public health – vaccination. Vaccination is an essential element of the EU public health strategy to address the current H1N1 pandemic.
Based on the current scientific evidence and epidemiological trends, our recently published Commission Communication on the pandemic sets out possible options to be considered by the Member States when determining their vaccination strategies.
For example, a joint procurement mechanism has been proposed to support the Member States that are still in the process of ordering vaccines.
Two weeks ago, EU Health Ministers stressed that more needs to be done to improve action across sectors.
The Commission is now considering, together with Member States, concrete ways to strengthen inter and multi-sectoral collaboration to ensure business continuity, and minimise the negative impact of the pandemic across society and the wider economy.
Depending on the scale and severity of the public health situation, business continuity plans could also identify measures and arrangements to keep critical services working.
The Commission will also continue to support national health authorities in reviewing their preparedness regimes and their response to the pandemic, as appropriate.
Risk communication is also a vital component of epidemic and pandemic management. When faced with health emergencies, it is essential that people receive clear, consistent and up-to-date information about the rapidly changing situation.
They can then make their own decisions on how to best protect their own health and help prevent infections.
The SARS outbreak six years ago underlined that a timely and transparent public information policy could help reduce excessive and inappropriate responses, and minimize the social disruption and economic consequences of a fast-moving global epidemic.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today's conference is an opportunity for you – as experts from across Europe – to come together to discuss issues that affect us all.
I strongly believe that our joint efforts will help us tackle the global threat of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza and, in so doing, protect public and animal health in Europe and beyond.