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Pandemics, Partnerships and the Promotion of Democracy

Paula J. Dobriansky at FPC briefing

Paula J. Dobriansky at FPC briefing

Remarks by Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula J. Dobriansky

Asia Society, New York

Thank you Jamie for that kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be with you today. Congratulations to the Asia Society on fifty years of successfully promoting greater knowledge and understanding among the peoples of Asia and the United States. Asia is one of the most dynamic regions of the world today. Our ties are both broad and deep – thanks in part to your diligent efforts.

In his recent speech to the Asia Society, President Bush observed that “Fifty years ago, there were only a handful of democracies in Asia; today there are nearly a dozen. Fifty years ago, most of Asia was mired in hopeless poverty; today its economies are engines of prosperity. These changes have been dramatic,” President Bush continued, “and as the Asian continent grows in freedom and opportunity, it will be a source of peace and stability and prosperity for all the world.”

As Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, I am responsible for the handling of a number of transnational issues impacting Asia, including avian flu, the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, and democracy.

Avian Influenza

Over the past year, the growing threat posed by avian flu has come to the forefront of policy-making in many Asian countries. A recent CNN/TIME survey of 66 Asian nations identified avian flu as their foremost global concern in 2006 -- even more than economic slowdown, terrorism, AIDS, or environmental issues. The current avian flu threat comes from the H5N1 strain, which was first transferred from birds to humans in 1997 and 2003 in Hong Kong. It has started to spread rapidly and widely, first throughout Asia in 2005, and more recently, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, totaling now over 45 countries. Since 1997, almost 200 people have contracted the virus, and more than half have died.

While the current strain does not allow for efficient human to human transmission, we are concerned that it can mutate to evoke rapid human to human transmission. This would be catastrophic to the health, security and economies of nations throughout Asia, and around the globe. Our challenge is to take specific actions to prevent such an outbreak, and to be prepared to address the threat as a global community.

In September 2005, at the opening of the UN General Assembly, President Bush announced the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, a network of over 90 countries and 9 international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and OIE (World Animal Health Organization). The partnership is built on a set of core principles for action – including a common commitment to transparency in reporting, immediate sharing of viral samples, and rapid response to handling outbreaks of Avian Influenza. Last October, the United States, hosted the first meeting of the Partnership to identify concrete actions that countries could take to improve preparedness and communication, surveillance and detection, and response and containment.

The shared threat of avian flu has generated unprecedented cooperation among most Asian countries. The region’s recent experience with SARS - which killed nearly 700 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage worldwide - underscores the importance of decisive action and effective multilateral cooperation.

In cooperation with the WHO and FAO, as well as bilaterally, we are working closely with countries throughout Asia to build avian flu handling- related capacity, increase reporting, ensure scientific cooperation, and enhance overall preparedness.

During January’s International Pledging Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza in Beijing, the United States announced $334 million to support international programs -- the largest contribution to the nearly $1.9 billion pledged.

Regionally, we are participating in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) initiatives to inventory regional experts on avian flu; to launch a region-wide tabletop exercise; to hold a Symposium on Emerging Infectious Diseases to be held in Beijing this month; and to hold workshops on risk communication and assessing pandemic preparedness plans. We also have joined Indonesia and Singapore in establishing a model avian influenza-free province in Tamarang, Indonesia, to develop best practices to prevent infection and spread of avian influenza in both animals and humans.

Bilaterally, we committed $18.4 million last year to improve surveillance, preparedness, response, and communications in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia -- the most affected countries in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, we are working closely with the international donor community to restructure the poultry industry and develop a human vaccine. We are assisting Laos and Cambodia to build their essential capacity and infrastructure to combat an avian influenza outbreak. The U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit-2 (NAMRU-2) lab in Jakarta is augmenting that country’s surveillance and diagnostic capabilities.

We are working with China to strengthen vaccine development, disease surveillance and rapid response and pandemic planning through the U.S.-China Joint Initiative on Avian Influenza. The CDC is providing technical training in Bangladesh throughout its 64 districts, and we are funding the WHO to support bird surveillance in Nepal.

Businesses in the region have also played a pivotal role. As part of my visit to Southeast Asia last October to discuss avian flu, WHO Director General Lee and I met with the Singapore chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce. I was impressed by the level and extent of planning underway. Many company representatives described their plans to have employees telecommute to work during an outbreak and how they would ensure continuity of operations, including funding alternative ways to transport goods and services.

In fact, a recent New York Times article reported Southeast Asian corporations are better prepared than ours. A survey of corporate officials found most had someone in charge of avian influenza policy; 60 percent had clearly defined plans. On the other hand, a survey done by Deloitte & Touche of U.S. business leaders, found that most had appointed no one to be in charge of policy, and two-thirds had not prepared adequately.