WHO - Countries should stockpile drugs in face of bird flu

Saturday, January 31, 2004

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Countries should consider stockpiling antiviral drugs in case the bird flu striking Asia's poultry becomes equally contagious among people, the World Health Organization said Friday.

Indonesia meanwhile warned that it could lose a million jobs because of the avian influenza, and China, stung by criticism of its slow response to SARS last year, ordered its officials to act quickly to inform people about the outbreak. Beijing later announced it had detected bird flu among poultry in two new regions.

The deadly virus is highly contagious among poultry, and millions of birds have died or have been destroyed in efforts to contain it.

The virus has killed 10 people -- eight in Vietnam and two in Thailand -- but so far there have been no reports of human-to-human transmission, with all cases traced to direct contact with sick birds.

Health experts fear that if avian influenza strikes someone suffering from human flu, the viruses could create a hybrid as deadly as bird flu and as contagious as human flu. That could cause a pandemic, the WHO has warned.

Because a vaccine for humans is many months away, and might not be widely available at first, countries need to consider stocking antiviral drugs, said Klaus Stohr, WHO's chief flu expert.

The virus appears to be resistant to two older generic flu drugs, amantadine and rimantadine. However, the newer flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza are expected to work.

Some countries already are negotiating with companies to supply the more popular Tamiflu, and Japan wants 40 tons of the drug, Stohr said.

The World Health Organization also said that some workers in parts of Asia are not wearing adequate protective gear as they slaughter contaminated birds.

Indonesia, which for days insisted that large-scale slaughter of chickens was not necessary, reversed that decision and ordered the mandatory killing of poultry in infected areas.

Sofyan Sudrajad, an Agriculture Ministry official, said Friday that the outbreak could leave 1.25 million people jobless and cost the country $916 million. Japan, a big chicken customer, has banned Indonesian imports.

Vietnam said it may be necessary to destroy all the chickens in the country.

Thailand also said that bird flu has been found in poultry in a province bordering the popular tourist resort of Phuket, the first time the virus has been detected in the southern part of the country.

China confirmed cases of bird flu Friday in poultry in two central provinces, Hunan and Hubei. Poultry slaughter and quarantine was under way in those areas, it said.

China also said it was investigating suspected cases in three other regions: Shanghai in central China, the central province of Anhui and the southern province of Guangdong.

The announcement comes three days after China confirmed its first case of bird flu in duck carcasses on a farm in the southern region of Guangxi.

Also Friday, the State Council, China's Cabinet, set up a national command center to battle bird flu and named a vice premier to run it. The move came a day after Premier Wen Jiabao issued an eight-point directive instructing agencies to deal with the problem aggressively.

The Chinese government was criticized for its early failure to respond to pleas for information and action during last year's outbreak of severe acute respiratory disease, or SARS, which eventually killed 349 people on China's mainland.

In the Philippines, which has not reported any bird flu, officials hosted a chicken lunch Friday with a WHO representative to underscore that properly cleaned and cooked poultry poses no danger.

Amsterdam's Schiphol airport placed disinfectant mats at the gates of flights arriving from Asia to stop bird flu virus from entering the country on passengers' shoes. The Netherlands suffered a major outbreak of bird flu last year, and it was contained only after the slaughter of 25 million chickens. One man died after contact with infected birds.

Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, said Friday it has stopped serving chicken on international flights, although there is no indication so far that bird flu is spreading to people who eat poultry products that are well prepared.

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