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Government unprepared - Southeast Asia may be centre of next human flu pandemic

Updated On: May 05, 2006

The epicenter of the next human flu pandemic could be Southeast Asia.

A tropical medicine expert warned of this at the recent Asia Medical Forum in Singapore as bird flu deaths in Southeast Asia account for more than 80 percent of the 113 lives claimed by the H5N1 virus worldwide.  The forum brought together scientists and policy makers from 52 countries to prepare for what one expert termed, 'the worst flu virus he has ever seen'.  Experts believe the H5N1 flu virus could mutate into a form that easily spreads from person to person, and fear a human flu pandemic, given the movement of poultry and people across the world.

A new report surveying government plans to counter the threat points to worrying signs that many Asian countries are lacking the capacity to deal with such a pandemic.  The lead author of the report, Dr Richard Coker, said Asian countries did however have the advantage of their experience with SARS, something he believed European countries could learn from.  Dr Coker listed ChinaThailand and Vietnam as having to address significant gaps in their plans while there were no plans available for LaosCambodia and Indonesia.  He said greater cooperation among countries is essential to build preparedness.  Leading virologist John Oxford said that there should be a target for when the pandemic could occur.  He suggested 18 months, adding this meant that the world needed to get organized immediately, yet only a third of the world has comprehensive pandemic plans.

Contrary to the report, Indonesia’s Health Ministry director for communicable diseases I Nyoman Kandun claimed the government had already prepared "dozens of strategies" to fight the virus, the most important being the stockpiling of Southeast Asia largest amount of oseltamivir tablets - a medicine for the prevention and treatment of human influenza.  Indonesia has the world's highest mortality rate from avian influenza, with 26 deaths from 34 confirmed cases of the virus. It also has the second-highest total of human fatalities from the virus.

Calling for greater transparency and openness in the fight against bird flu, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that a key area of cooperation among countries - the sharing of samples of virus strains to facilitate research, was hampered by worry among some countries about intellectual property rights or not receiving a fair share of the scientific credit and fears of the economic impact of being placed on a travel advisory.  He pointed out the need to address these concerns by building the fundamental relationship of sincerity and trust between all parties.  Otherwise it would lead to a deepening of the problem.  He urged countries to take a united, global approach to fighting the virus.

Meanwhile, ASEAN announced it had begun stockpiling influenza drug Tamiflu in the region in the case of a possible pandemic.  The stockpile of the drug, considered a frontline drug against a potential human flu pandemic, and 700,000 sets of protective equipment for personnel involved in fighting the virus in the field, are part of one million dollars in aid pledged by Japan to ASEAN to fight the virus.  To be stored in Singapore and reserved for an early response to an influenza pandemic in the region, officials said the stockpile of the main drug used to treat bird flu would help ASEAN countries provide a rapid response and would be a significant step forward in fighting the deadly virus. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said antiviral drugs like Tamiflu would be crucial for rapid containment of the disease at the onset of any human pandemic.  It added that despite being the epicenter of the disease, currently the Asian region does not have a stockpile of Tamiflu.  International stockpiles of the drug are currently stored in Switzerland and the United States.  WHO regional director Shigeru Omi said a bird flu pandemic can still be prevented or delayed if rapid containment measures including the large scale administration of anti-viral drugs, quarantine, travel restrictions and social distancing, such as the closure of schools, are implemented quickly.

Sources: 
S-E Asia could be 'ground zero' of next human flu pandemic (The Straits Times, 4 May 2006)
Rapid measures could prevent bird flu pandemic, WHO says (Jakarta Post, 3 May 2006)
Sharing Of Samples Crucial To The Battle Against Bird Flu - S'pore (Bernama, 3 May 2006)
Southeast Asia to have stockpile of Tamiflu (ANTARA, 2 May 2006)