- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

From combined dispatches

PUSAN, South Korea

Asia-Pacific leaders announced new measures Saturday to fight bird flu, as Australia pledged more than $70 million to prepare the region for a pandemic.

“We agreed on collective practical measures, including strengthening cooperation and technical assistance among APEC economies to limit influenza at its source and prevent human outbreaks,” the leaders said.

The 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum pledged to test whether the region was ready to cope with a flu pandemic and to fund specialists to help countries respond more rapidly if one erupts.

This will begin with “a desk-top simulation exercise in early 2006 to test regional responses and communication networks,” according to the statement issued at the APEC summit in Pusan, a South Korean port.

The leaders also agreed to enhance “information on border screening procedures and controls to increase transparency and to reduce risk to trade and travelers.”

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed more than 60 people and led to the slaughter of millions of chickens, ducks, geese and other poultry since late 2003 in APEC countries, including Indonesia and China, which reported new fatalities last week.

Health specialists fear that the virus, which can be transmitted in bird-to-human contact, could mutate into a form that can be transmitted easily between humans and could spiral out of control rapidly and kill millions of people.

Speaking out

At the two-day summit, Australia announced a $70 million package to combat the virus and other diseases, with 90 percent of the money to go toward bilateral assistance to the worst-hit countries.

The agreement commits APEC members “to effective surveillance, transparency and openness, and close domestic regional and international coordination and collaboration,” the leaders said.

In a veiled reference to Asian states such as China and Vietnam, Australian Prime Minister John Howard told APEC delegates that several countries had hidden the extent of bird flu outbreaks in 2003.

As well as taking steps to prepare for a pandemic, Mr. Howard stressed the “importance of putting aside any sense of national pride or self-consciousness about any outbreak in individual countries.”

The United Nations’ health and agriculture organizations last year criticized several Asian nations, including China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, for being slow to report outbreaks of bird flu.

On Friday, Chinese authorities locked down a village in eastern Anhui province where a pregnant 24-year-old woman died of bird flu last week, becoming the nation’s first confirmed human fatality from the virus.

Indonesia had confirmed two more deaths Thursday.

Spreading threat

Canadian officials in Ottawa said Saturday that a low-pathogenic strain of the H5N1 avian influenza virus had been discovered in wild migratory birds in Manitoba province.

The virus was not the strain responsible for the human deaths in Asia, said Brian Evans of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“Canadians can rest assured that we have not detected the Asian strain of avian influenza of animal or human health concern,” Mr. Evans said. “The strain detected in Manitoba is completely distinct from the strain currently present in Asia.”

All the viruses analyzed were “low-pathogenic types,” “very mild” and “nonvirulent” and would produce “only mild disease, if any at all, if introduced into domestic birds,” Mr. Evans said.

The samples gathered by the Canadian Wildlife Service were taken from migratory birds, mostly mallards, in seven provinces and sent to the National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases in Winnipeg for testing.

On Friday, Canadian officials announced the discovery of the H5 avian influenza virus in a duck at a British Columbia farm. Officials said the duck showed no symptoms, but Canadian Food Inspection Agency personnel quarantined the farm as a precaution.

Fighting back

In Hanoi, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai warned that bird flu could spell national “disaster” as he accused health officials of failing to stem outbreaks in poultry, state press reported yesterday.

“If we let a human pandemic occur, it would be a huge disaster for the nation,” Mr. Khai was quoted as saying by the Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan at a government meeting Saturday on avian flu.

“The epidemic [among poultry] is continuing to break out and become more and more serious,” he reportedly said.

Vietnam, a country of 83 million people, has suffered 42 human deaths from bird flu — the highest number of any country — and is experiencing its third avian influenza season since late 2003.

Mr. Khai threatened disciplinary action against officials who badly managed the epidemic that has spread among birds in more than a quarter of Vietnam’s 64 provinces and cities since early October.

“There has been tardiness and inefficiency in the fight against bird flu in several localities,” he said.

About a million birds have died of the virus or been culled since October, and poultry markets have been shut down in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other urban centers.

Specialists fear the virus could spread even faster in the winter months. The number of outbreaks is already at the same level as it was in mid-January, the coldest month, during previous years.

Rising toll

Yesterday, visiting French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said after meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Tran Thi Trung Chien, that he found his hosts have a “full grasp of the problem.”

Mr. Bertrand was on a trip to Vietnam and China to gauge “the state of mind, the state of readiness and the state of needs” in the region to fight bird flu.

China is the latest country to announce a fatality.

Deaths also have occurred in Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand.

China said yesterday that bird flu had been detected in two new locations, bringing the number of confirmed outbreaks in the country in the past month to 17.

One outbreak struck a poultry farm in Inner Mongolia in northern China, and another hit a geese farm in Hubei province, the Ministry of Agriculture said on its Web site.

In the Inner Mongolia outbreak, 176 poultry were discovered dead on a farm in Morin Dawa county on Tuesday, and the disease was confirmed yesterday by a national laboratory, the ministry said.

On Wednesday, 3,500 geese died at a farm in the Tianezhou economic development district in Hubei’s Shishou city, according to the ministry. That outbreak also was confirmed yesterday as bird flu.

The news came four days after China announced its first confirmed human fatality from avian influenza — the peasant woman from Anhui province.

A 12-year-old girl in Hunan province also was considered a likely bird flu fatality, according to local health authorities, but tests on an unreliable sample made confirmation impossible.

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