13 October 2005
United States Promotes Bird Flu Prevention in Southeast Asia
Health Secretary Michael Leavitt extends aid to Cambodia, Laos
By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington – U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt has signed agreements with Cambodia and Laos to help strengthen defenses against avian influenza in the region in an effort to avert a global flu pandemic.
Leavitt and other top officials from U.S. health agencies are on a five-nation tour in Asia to raise awareness about the threat of a flu pandemic and the need for the global community to join in a concerted effort to prevent it. (See related article.)
Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Lee Jong-Wook is accompanying the U.S. delegation on the trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
In the agreement, signed October 11 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the United States pledged to provide $1.85 million in assistance to help the Cambodian Ministry of Health bolster the public-health sector and prepare for a potential outbreak of bird flu.
Cambodia is one of four nations where a dangerous and aggressive avian flu virus – H5N1 – has crossed the species barrier from birds to humans. Four cases of respiratory infection have ended in four deaths attributed to H5N1.
Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia also have witnessed the cross-species leap achieved by H5N1 for a total of 117 confirmed human cases since December 2003, and 60 deaths.
Widespread outbreaks through the region among birds have led to the death or destruction of an estimated 150 million birds, a number that continues to mount.
In virtually all human cases, health officials say people became ill because they had contact with diseased birds. So far, the virus is not easily passed among humans. If H5N1 gains that capability, a global pandemic could result because of the lack of human immunity to the disease.
In Laos, Leavitt signed an agreement for the United States to provide $3.4 million in assistance, with an emphasis on improving capabilities for disease surveillance.
These grants are part of a $25 million assistance plan that the United States has enacted to help improve bird flu prevention and control.
“It’s a function of having people trained to recognize the signs so that if it happens in a remote village in Laos or in Vietnam, or it happens in the United States for the first time, we are able to see it and respond to it quickly,” Leavitt said in a CNN interview from Vientiane, Laos.
Failing a rapid response, health officials predict that disease could spread rapidly around the world, with as many as 7 million deaths, according to a WHO prediction.
Many times more than that number could suffer a serious bout of illness; so many, officials warn, that social and economic disruption would result.
“There are also consequences for economic growth as well as regional and global security,” said Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs and Democracy Paula Dobriansky, who met with health officials in Singapore October 12.
Widespread illness could result in businesses closing and manufacturing slowing, with resultant breakdowns in supply chains, delivery of products and shortages of essentials.
Asian nations are a breeding ground for new influenza viruses, experts say, because of a traditional rural lifestyle that puts humans and domestic birds such as chickens and ducks in close proximity.
The environment provides many opportunities for a virus to be exchanged among species and that creates greater opportunity for a virus to mutate.
Leavitt and his delegation are visiting rural locations where the disease has appeared in order to see the conditions that can give rise to it.
While international agreements have urged changes in Asian methods of poultry raising, the U.S. delegation will likely see how difficult it will be to bring about such wide-scale change in traditional ways.
As the U.S. secretary of health works to address a potential global health problem in Asia, new evidence emerges about the potential of disease to migrate.
WHO confirmed October 13 that samples of H5N1 have been verified in domestic birds from Turkey.
Bird deaths in Romania have been attributed to the H5 subtype of avian influenza as further testing is conducted to determine whether the strain is the highly pathogenic H5N1.
These reports verify the steady westward march of the virus. The virus made its first movement toward Europe in July and August with confirmations of H5N1 in Russia and Kazakhstan.
For more information on U.S. and international efforts to combat avian influenza, see Bird Flu.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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