A deadly influenza outbreak may be on the horizon. Since 1997, a strain of avian flu known as H5N1 has spread rapidly among birds in East Asia, reaching as far north as Siberia. If this strain, which has killed 55 percent of its known human victims, mutates into a virus easily transmitted by people, the resulting pandemic could kill millions and would have staggering global social and economic impacts. "It is not if it is going to happen. It is when, and where, and how bad," said Dr. Michael Osterholm at the first meeting sponsored by the Wilson Center's new Global Health Initiative on September 19. "Welcome to my nightmare," warned Helen Branswell, a Canadian medical reporter speaking at the conference. Read the complete event summary.

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The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars launched the Global Health Initiative (www.wilsoncenter.org/globalhealth) to provide a forum for an interdisciplinary examination of health challenges facing the United States and the world. Delving into such topics as AIDS orphans, bioterrorism, child mortality, and gene therapy, the initiative seeks to promote dialogue about pressing health issues among the foreign policy community. The initiative will focus on four key themes:

  • health's impact on development
  • the role of national and international institutions in global health policy
  • infectious diseases; and
  • emerging health technology.

"It is our hope that such a forum would ultimately increase understanding of health issues and inspire policy decisions that will improve the lives of citizens around the world," said Wilson Center President and Director Lee Hamilton.

This Initiative's first event, "Emerging Pandemic: Costs and Consequences of an Avian Influenza Outbreak" featured panelists Michael Osterholm (pictured above), director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, and associate director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Center for Food Protection and Defense; and Helen Branswell, a medical writer for the Canadian Press Agency. Osterholm focused on gaps and best practices for addressing a flu crisis in the United States and in global policymaking. Branswell, who has been covering the avian flu epidemic for the last 18 months, drew on her experience covering the SARS virus to explore the potential impacts of an avian flu outbreak in the United States and Canada. The Wilson Center plans to host additional meetings on this topic in collaboration with Cornell University.

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