10/18/2005, 00.00
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Alarm bells sound in the West but the frontline against the bird flu is in Asia

Increasingly, voices are raised arguing that the fight against the bird flu must be carried out where it started, in South-East Asia. Countries in the region should be provided with the necessary aid. New cases of infected birds are being reported.

Rome (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The number of reports about infected birds is on the rise, but experts say that for the time being the H5N1 virus is only a threat to animals, not humans.

"At the moment, this disease is mainly a veterinarian problem [. . .] as far as we are concerned. This is not [. . .] a human health problem," said Philippe Houdart, head of Crisis Prevention and Crisis Management at the Belgian food agency.

But experts warn there could be a real danger in South-East Asia—an incubation hotspot where the virus appears to be endemic—if the virus mutates and is transmitted between humans.

"It's like watching a volcano getting ready to erupt," said Alejandro Thiermann, president of the International Animal Health Code for the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.

Moreover, most governments appear more interested in stockpiling drugs than helping set up prevention programmes in South East Asia and assisting local authorities in improving hygiene.

The demand for drug is so high that Swiss drug-maker Roche is "prepared to discuss [. . .] sub-licences to increase manufacturing of Tamiflu," said William Burns, head of the Basel-based firm's drug division.

This would allow for a two-tiered pricing system that could benefit poorer countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh that cannot afford this expensive drug.

In Europe concern is growing over a case reported on the Greek island of Chios (near the border with Turkey) and additional ones in Romania (on the border with Ukraine), but equally worrisome are the cases currently being reported in Asia.

Vietnam. The government is set to spend 700 billion dong (US$ 44.3 million) to vaccinate domestic fowl. There have been 22 cases of contagion between animals in 10 provinces since April, resulting in 14,000 birds dying or being culled. So far 50 million domestic birds have been vaccinated and another 100 will be by the end of November. Complete vaccination is expected to be completed by the end of March 2007.

Vietnam has requested foreign economic aid and donors have pledged US$ 6.8 million for the next six months for health and farmer assistance programmes.

Since 2003, the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus has killed 41 of the 91 known infected people in the country. The authorities fear that a full-blown outbreak in humans might strike at least 10 per cent of Vietnam's 82 million people.

China. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, China has one quarter of all chickens in the world, two thirds of all farm geese and nine tenths of all domestic ducks. The government has reported no bird flu cases and is challenging claims made by Hong Kong University scientists who said the virus struck migratory birds in western China and spread from there into Kazakhstan, Russia and Europe.

Indonesia. US Health Secretary Michael Leavitt said yesterday during his visit to Jakarta that his government would give Indonesia US$ 3.15 million to shore up its early warning and diagnosis system, improve surveillance, and bolster rapid response teams in containing avian influenza.

Singapore. Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan announced yesterday that Singapore had stockpiled enough drugs and set aside enough isolation wards in hospitals to tackle a possible bird flu outbreak. The island-nation is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and the bird flu virus represents a very high risk for the population.

Bangladesh. Experts are critical of the government's failure to cope with the epidemic in fowl and people. It has neither the money to buy vaccine nor a plan to deal with the emergency even though poultry farming employs some 5 million people and is expanding. Following United Nations recommendation, the authorities have ordered tighter controls on migratory birds. The world body has also called on the government to impose greater supervision on poultry farming and to come up with its own emergency plan.

Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Health Care and Nutrition Ministry has imposed tight control over poultry farms and migratory birds and banned imports of poultry and exotic birds from affected countries.

Iran. Thousands of wild geese have died in the north-western region of Poldasht from an unknown disease. In a statement to the media, the government denied avian flu was the cause, but it quarantined the entire area on the border with Azerbaijan. There are growing fears that migratory birds may carry the "mysterious virus" may and spread this fall to the Caspian and Black Seas.

Saudi Arabia. The government is stockpiling anti-viral drugs. Concern is mounting over what might happen during the traditional pilgrimage to Makkah, especially Hajj, which is scheduled to take place in early January, and which bring millions of people to the city. An emergency plan has been prepared; involves closing schools, imposing travel restrictions and enforcing a tight quarantine.

Israel. The country, which is on the path of many migratory species, is on maximum alert. In case of a pandemic, experts expect at least 3,000 people to die. The authorities have ordered 8 million doses of poultry vaccine.

Siberia. Russian Agriculture Minister has confirmed bird flu in two villages in western Siberian province of Kurgan, whilst 19 others in Novosibirsk and Altai provinces are under observation. Three other provinces where bird flu was detected earlier—Chelyabinsk, Omsk and Tyumen—are now said to be free of the virus. Hundreds of thousands of fowl were culled and numerous areas were placed under quarantine. (PB)

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See also
Bird flu suspected in new death in Indonesia
Suspected new cases of bird flu in humans in China and Thailand
Special measures against bird flu
Avian flu claims more human victims
In China no information about the dangers of the avian flu


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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”