Asia Faces Bird Flu Crisis of Unprecedented Scale
SHANGHAI, China Asia faces an outbreak of unprecedented proportions as it grapples with avian influenza, which the World Health Organization (WHO) warns could develop into a pandemic unless detection and prevention methods are improved.
Health officials from across the region raised alarm bells this week over bird flu, which WHO officials said had claimed 28 lives in the region.
They argued that increased collaboration between countries and more study was needed to combat the virus, which resurfaced in July in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China and dampened Asian demand for grain.
"This outbreak is historically unprecedented. Its infectious agents don't respect international boundaries," Shigeru Omi, regional director for the WHO's Western Pacific Region, told member-state delegates gathered in Shanghai.
The WHO has said the virulent virus was circulating more widely in the region than originally believed, which is particularly worrisome because humans lack immunity to it. A huge flow of people, goods, and foods around Asia and lax animal husbandry practices have been cited as prime concerns.
The region "still had a long way to go in terms of preparedness," said WHO official Hitoshi Oshitani, the regional adviser for surveillance and response. Although avian flu is very infectious in birds, it does not spread easily among humans. However, there is a danger that an avian virus mixes with a human one and forms a new disease.
Malaysia, which detected three new cases in a northern state over the weekend, said it had strengthened infectious disease surveillance and drawn up a rapid response plan.
It suggested countries around the region adopt a common framework to prepare for a potential national pandemic, a representative said.
Singapore suggested wider use of vaccinations, an option Thailand is strongly considering.
"The outbreak of Asian influenza in the region is potentially more dangerous than SARS, and we should not ignore a pandemic arising from this," the Singapore representative said, referring to the deadly flulike severe acute respiratory syndrome. "We cannot wait for a pandemic to appear before us. Rapid vaccine development is necessary and needed urgently."
Bird-flu-stricken Thailand is likely to make a decision on whether to vaccinate fowl this week, as thousands of chicken farmers demanded on Monday that the government maintain its ban on bird flu vaccines.
The farmers said European customers would balk at eating vaccinated chickens because of sensitivities about chemical residues in their food.
Thailand was the world's fourth-largest chicken exporter until the disease halted exports to Japan and Europe.