Pandemic prevention plan approved for Asia Pacific
May 7, 2006 - 6:15:37 PM
Government officials from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries Friday approved a regional plan to stave off a new influenza pandemic - or at least to keep the global economy running if millions of people die or fall ill with the disease.
Ministers and senior officials from the 21 APEC countries said they were cautiously hopeful that the plan could help for the first time in history to stamp out a potential influenza pandemic before it starts.
"Prevention is better than cure - that is our policy," Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan said in the APEC meeting here.
The plan calls for prompt reporting of new outbreaks of H5N1 or any other bird-flu strain in poultry, coordinated vaccine research and changes in how poultry is raised in the developing world.
At the same time, it calls on countries to develop contingency plans to keep borders open and trade flowing should a deadly new human virus break out and start spreading around the world.
The APEC plan was approved as the H5N1 bird-flu virus continued to spread from Asia to Europe and Africa, killing millions of chickens and at least 113 people. While H5N1 is now fairly difficult for humans to catch, some scientists say the virus is a likely candidate to mutate into a pandemic flu strain.
The world has not seen flu pandemic since 1968, when about one million people died, but scientists said that statistically one breaks out about every 40 years. The worst recorded flu pandemic, the "Spanish flu" of 1918, killed more than 40 million people, more than the fighting in World War I.
While the APEC ministers were preparing for the worst this week, chief US influenza-response coordinator John Lange said he believed there was still a chance the world could stave off a new pandemic, if countries worked closely together.
"We know more now than we did in 1918 in terms of medical dynamics," said Lange. "If a [human flu] strain similar to the 1918 strain were to emerge, we're hopeful that there will be possibilities of containing it."
But he warned that once H5N1 or any new flu virus begins human-to-human transmission, countries would have to act quickly with anti-viral medicine, possible quarantines and vaccines - if they are available.
"Certainly if we ever get to a point of human-to-human transmission, the world will need to react very quickly if there is any chance to avoid a global pandemic," Lange said.
For now, though, the plan's prevention side centres mostly on containing H5N1 in poultry, and many APEC member-states are looking to Vietnam's recent success in containment.
Vietnam has been the single hardest-hit country since the H5N1 virus emerged in 2003, with 42 people and some 100 million poultry dead. Last year, the virus was endemic in poultry nationwide, but this year there has not been a single bird or human case confirmed.
Khoan said Friday that openness and sharing of information was a key to his country's recent success in containing the virus.
"In Vietnam, we got experience and a lesson in combating this disease," he told reporters. "I think the most important thing is to be transparent, to provide the people very clear information about the dangers of this disease in order to prevent it.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials say a nationwide poultry vaccination programme and a widespread public-education campaign launched last year were keys to Vietnam's impressive containment, but a World Bank official also touted transparency as a vital weapon in the bird-flu fight.
"The government of Vietnam was - after some hesitation - brutally honest when it came to avian flu," said Klaus Rohland, Vietnam representative for the World Bank. "If you ask me what was the most important aspect of fighting avian flu, at least initially for us, it was that very transparent approach."
Vietnam initially covered up the first H5N1 breakout in poultry in summer 2003, with officials admitting later that they were afraid the bad publicity would affect the country's hosting of the South-East Asian Games that year.
Later, however, the WHO praised Vietnam's cooperation and newfound openness.
Cover-ups or delays in reporting infectious disease outbreaks in animals could allow the virus to spread and also expose more humans - giving a virus more opportunities to mutate into one that can spread easily between people.
Human-to-human transmission is the last step that the H5N1 needs to take before becoming a pandemic strain that could spread around the world within weeks, according to the WHO.
"Not being transparent doesn't just affect one country, it affects the whole international community," warned Lange.
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