Top officials say public should not panic over bird flu

Prominent health officials and politicians are advising people not panic about a possible influenza pandemic, despite the steady spread of a deadly strain of avian flu among humans.

At a meeting in Ottawa health officials and world leaders recommended that more be done to stem the spread of avian flu, boost research on vaccines and increase surveillance of affected areas.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said the global fight against a flu pandemic could be undermined if governments fail to prevent mass panic in the event of widespread fatalities.

To date almost 70 people in Southeast Asia have died of avian flu and the outbreak among birds has now reached Europe.

Many experts say the world is overdue for a flu pandemic and predict the most likely cause will be an animal strain that mutates, allowing it to be passed easily from human to human.

Despite increasing concern on the part of the public, created in part by the media, Margaret Chan, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization, said the general population should remember it is relatively hard to catch bird flu.

Chan says as yet it is not a pandemic and WHO does not want the public to have unnecessary anxiety.

Chan and Canadian officials said the public should understand there are clear differences between avian flu, seasonal flu and a pandemic that could kill tens of millions, such as the Spanish flu of 1918-1919.

At the conference in Ottawa on combating future pandemics, Chan said they are taking very drastic actions to reduce the risk of avian influenza to animals and birds, but there are clear signs the continuing talk about a possible pandemic is making people nervous.

Following soaring demand Roche Canada, a unit of Swiss drug maker Roche, has suspended Canadian sales of its antiviral Tamiflu until the flu season starts.

According to Canada's chief public health officer it makes no sense for people to stockpile Tamiflu, since no one knows when the next pandemic would start.

He told delegates that one of the most profound challenges faced is communication with the public, and fear, and bad information, could all too easily escalate into panic.

U.S. Health Secretary Michael Leavitt says a balance has to be found between informing and inflaming, in order to encourage people to prepare, and not to panic.

Leavitt says what is known is that there is likely to be another pandemic at some stage.

Mexican Health Minister Julio Frenk said the best way to ensure sufficient vaccines in the event of a pandemic was to transfer the necessary technology now to nations such as Mexico, India, China and Brazil.

While Leavitt described the proposal as reasonable, Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott was more cautious, saying it was very hard for a country that has no experience in producing vaccines to suddenly start doing so successfully.

Italian poultry farmers demonstrated on Tuesday, demanding action against "irrational fear" over bird flu, which has cut national consumption of chicken by more than half.

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