Disaster experts meet in Australia to discuss bird flu

The group of 21 member countries, including Australia, Japan, Indonesia and the U.S., will meet this week to discuss a coordinated response to a global outbreak of the deadly bird flu.

It is hoped any gaps in preparedness will be identified.

The meeting comes amid warnings that international travel would be virtually wiped out in a pandemic.

According to Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott overseas travel would almost cease for a "significant period" if avian flu broke out in the region.

Abbott told the media that regardless of what border controls countries might instill, very few people who will be eager to travel.

He says Australia would do all it could to bring home Australians abroad during a pandemic, but refused to state whether Australia would accept flu refugees attempting to escape a flu pandemic in their own countries.

Mr Abbott has already said that Australia would consider closing its borders in a pandemic.

Also at the forum will be the International Red Cross, and observers from the Pacific Island Forum, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

To date seven Indonesians have contracted the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu since last December, and four of these have died.

In the latest outbreak of the virus in China, about 2600 birds died at a farm near the Inner Mongolia provincial capital of Hohot last week.

The Australian Government has announced tougher quarantine measures after authorities in Melbourne found three pigeons imported from Canada had been exposed to the bird flu virus.

Prime Minister John Howard said that so far, the avian influenza virus had not mutated into a form that could spread easily from human to human, and according to advice, that risk was low, but they are leaving nothing to chance.

Mr Howard said he believes Australia is probably better prepared than any other country to cope with bird flu, as the Government has allocated more than $170 million over four years to stockpile anti-viral medicines, boost research, develop vaccines and fund border protection measures.

The Australian Medical Association has called on APEC delegates to develop a response based on education and information, not fear and panic.

President Mukesh Haikerwal points out that there had been fewer than 100 cases of bird-to-human transmissions of the virus and no cases of human-to-human transmissions world wide.

Dr Haikerwal says that from the evidence and the incidence of bird flu at the moment, it is premature and irresponsible to talk of widespread doom, destruction and death.

He says that people need to be able to get on with their lives without the prospect of 'some sort of ornithological Armageddon creating fear in the community'.

Calls for the government to override the patent rules for the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which can moderate avian flu symptoms, and authorise manufacturers to produce a generic version, have largely been ignored by Mr Abbott.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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