ASEAN stockpiles bird flu drug in Malaysia

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is presently meeting in Kuala Lumpur, has agreed this week to create a stockpile of antiviral drugs to combat the deadly spread of bird flu throughout the region.

ASEAN has also promised to work more closely on tackling cross-border threats such as bird flu by developing a regional approach and by sharing resources.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has said the region must be in a state of preparedness, and added that the stockpile would be available to any ASEAN country that might need it.

Although bird flu virus remains relatively hard for people to catch and is spread almost exclusively through human contact with birds, health officials fear it could mutate into a virus that could pass from person to person and set off a global pandemic.

The current H5N1 strain of bird flu virus in circulation has killed 70 people in Asia since it swept through large parts of the region in late 2003, and experts say a flu pandemic among humans could kill millions and cause massive economic losses.

To date the majority of the human deaths have occurred in Vietnam, but people have also died in Thailand, Indonesia, China and Cambodia.

Early this week Japan unveiled a $135 million package to help Asian nations tackle bird flu, including assisting the region to stockpile enough doses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu to treat 500,000 people.

Malaysia has also repeated an offer made at the World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting in Geneva last month to establish a regional centre for influenza.

Abdullah says they are looking for the the support of ASEAN member countries to establish the regional centre in Malaysia in collaboration with the WHO, as the limited number of existing WHO reference centres for human influenza are located outside the ASEAN region.

Abdullah says this will be Malaysia's contribution towards global health security.

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