Pandemic inevitable, say experts from around the world meeting in Canada

Counter-measures are being discussed; a pandemic would cost Asia nearly 300 billion dollars. Another contaminated breeding farm in China and the fourth death in Indonesia. India wants to start producing Tamiflu, even without the green light from Roche.


Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The fourth death from bird flu has been confirmed in Indonesia and further spread of infection has been registered in eastern China. In Ottawa, meanwhile, experts from around the world say a pandemic is "inevitable" and it is set to cost Asia 300 million dollars.

Today in Ottawa, experts and health representatives from more than 30 countries started to discuss how to tackle the H5N1 virus. However, all held that a pandemic is "inevitable". Jong-wook Lee, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the problem cannot be resolved within national borders: a global approach is called for. For his part, Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, said "too much time" has already been lost and that although FAO has been promised donations of up to 30 million dollars for its prevention program, not even one cent has come through as yet.

The pandemic would cost Asia between 250 and 290 billion dollars "in the short-term", according to research by the Asian Development Bank.

Experts say that today only the richest states could avail themselves of the antiviral vaccine, which is too costly for poorer countries. Ujjal Dosanjh, Canadian health minister, said every state should produce the vaccine rather than allow the population to die.

The pharmaceutical firm Roche – which has the patent for the antiviral drug Tamiflu – said some days ago that it is willing to authorize other firms to produce the drug (since it cannot manage to meet global demand) but this has not happened yet. India is considering whether to start producing it, copying the patent of Roche to "prevent a public emergency", but the Swiss firm has warned that production "calls for particular experience".

In Copenhagen, during a meeting of experts of European states, Gudjon Magnusson, of WHO recalled that the "the starting point for the war on bird flu is Asia not Europe". In Asia, meanwhile, new cases of infection have not stopped appearing.

China. There is a new case of infection in a poultry farm near Tianchang city in the eastern province of Anhui, discovered on 20 October but confirmed only yesterday 24 October, by the Agriculture Ministry. Around 2,100 geese were infected and 200 died. Quarantine was imposed over a four km radius, and around 45,000 chickens were culled while another 140,000 were vaccinated. This is the second serious case of contagion within a week discovered in the country, in areas separated from each other by hundreds of km. WHO is giving the cases great attention especially China was reluctant to share information about Sars in recent years, a virus which killed some 800 people worldwide.

Vietnam. The country hardest hit by the H5N1 virus (91 infections and 41 deaths since 2003) has vaccinated more than 50 million out of 260 million bred chickens. Despite the precautions taken, in October there were two more epidemics in the southern provinces of Dong Thap and Bac Lieu. Drastic measures are being evaluated for the breeding and sale of chickens, with a ban on breeding in cities and leave them roaming free in fields. There is a proposal to forbid the sale of a traditional meat cake made of duck and goose meat.

Indonesia. Hairai Wibisono, an official of the Health Ministry has confirmed the fourth death from bird flu. The victim is a 23-year-old youth from Bogor, western Java, admitted to hospital in September and who died after two days. The ministry recognizes only seven cases of infection (122 recognised cases across Asia) even if there are dozens of suspect cases. There is concern about the time taken – more than a month – to ascertain that the disease was the cause of death; this was revealed in testing undertaken in a Hong Kong laboratory. All cases of infection come from the highly populated Java and FAO intends to undertake "house-by-house" research on the island to search for sick birds, do away with breeding grounds and extend vaccinations. According to Peter Roeder, FAO expert, there are around 200 million chickens in Indonesia bred in 30 million homes, an ideal culture for new infections to break out. Jakarta is criticized because it has not given the problem enough attention and it has not culled animals at risk of infection. However the government has countered criticism by saying it does not have enough funds to compensate farmers. The resistance to slaughter animals at risk "is not rare in developing countries", says Roeder. The virus has spread to 23 out 33 provinces of the country and has killed more than 10 million bred birds.

India. The western state of Gujarat is in a state of high alert, with strict controls in birds' migratory routes.

Egypt. Testing on domestic and migratory birds has started along the Mediterranean coast.

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