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The looming danger of a bird flu pandemic

Updated On: Nov 02, 2007

As Indonesia tackles the all-important question of global environmentalism and prepares to host the world on this topic, the other problem that has plagued the island archipelago remains unresolved.

This is the issue with bird flu, which has spread to two-thirds of provinces in Indonesia, with Java being the most hard hit.  The disease has also re-emerged in Vietnam this year. Vietnam, once the country worst hit by bird flu in Southeast Asia, had managed to control the situation with mass culls and vaccinations, and was free of bird flu for more than a year before the disease re-emerged early this year.

Quietly and silently, the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain claimed its 88th Indonesian victim in early Oct 2007 as a 12-year-old boy died in a Jakarta hospital despite increasing hopes of recovery after his white cell count was on the rise. In this particular case, Indonesian authorities took a fortnight to diagnose the disease while the method of infection was never really determined although the boy had a history of contact with infected poultry. 30 people who have been diagnosed with H5N1 so far in 2007 have all died despite the Indonesian health ministry’s assertion that they were making headway in dealing with the threat.

Even as advanced nations of the world try to contribute cutting-edge research to help understand the disease, the Indonesian government has rejected scientific evidence presented to it that the virus is now capable of spreading from human to human. In September 2007, the Indonesian health authorities rejected a mathematical analysis published in the US journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that found evidence of human-to-human transmission in a cluster of cases in Sumatra, where eight family members died in May 2006. Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari described the disputed findings as 'misleading' and said if that was the case, the virus would have already killed thousands of people across the country.

As it focuses national attention on natural disaster and environmental damage, Indonesia continues to have millions of chickens wandering around in lower income, densely populated neighbourhoods. There is a danger that such virus might spread southwards if infected migratory birds (as many as 80 different species) head south between late July and late November each year to the rest of Southeast Asia and eventually Australia.

There had been three flu pandemics in the past century, with the one in 1918-19 killing as many as 40 million people. Two others in 1957 and 1968 together claimed an additional three million lives. 'It will be impossible to really eradicate it,' says one Jakarta-based WHO official involved in the fight against bird flu. 'Indonesia is going to have to live with it. It is still an open question whether it will turn into a pandemic. But every day that passes, I think we are closer to one.'

The Indonesian government continues to be obstinate in sharing bird samples making any new vaccine difficult. This Indonesian governmental decision was taken in 2006 despite Jakarta’s subscription to a World Health Assembly resolution last May which, among other things, stressed the need for the dissemination of samples. Indonesia is still sulking over the fact that it thinks it has not benefited enough from the commercial aspects of sharing such flu samples. It accuses drug companies of marketing results of its bird flu research at high prices.

Fearful of Indonesian bird flu’s deadly presence in East Asia, the region’s economic superpower, Japan, is holding intensive talks with Indonesia to help Jakarta develop its own capacity in handling the spread of bird flu disease and through this process develop vaccines that can stop the entire region from suffering the effects of the bird flu virus. "Japan understands Indonesia's strong desire to develop its own capacity in the production of bird flu vaccines and medicines to help overcome the spread of bird flu," Chairman of National Commission for Bird Flu Control, Bayu Krisnamurthi said in Tokyo.

He said the talks were aimed at building mutual understanding on the form of cooperation based on the principles of the World Health Organization (WHO) but in support of Indonesia's desire to build its capacity in producing its own medicines without depending too much on foreign assistance. "This is badly needed considering the fact that the pandemic of the disease is found in IndonesiaIndonesia is required to have the ability to provide medicines and prevent the spread have the ability to provide medicines and prevent the spread of the disease in a short time," he said.

Krisnamurthi said that it was a must for Indonesia to have enough stocks of cheap vaccines in various provinces because the health conditions of people and animals had not yet been encouraging in all provinces. Indonesia and Japan already has existing cooperation through mainly Japan-funded animal health laboratories in Subang, Bogor (West Java) and Lampung in Sumatra.  The projects in Bogor and Lampung will be expanded and a new laboratory at Subang will be opened.  (1 November 2007)

Sources:

Japan, RI exploring cooperation in bird flu vaccine (Jakarta Post, 31 October 2007)

Has virus come home to roost? (Jakarta Post, 25 October 2007)

Two more provinces hit by bird flu in Vietnam (Channel News Asia, 1 November 2007)