BANGKOK, Thailand – The likelihood of a human flu pandemic (search) is very high, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt warned Monday as he sought Southeast Asian cooperation to combat the spread of bird flu.
Leavitt and the director of the World Health Organization (search) are touring Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to seek their collaboration in preparing for the anticipated public health emergency linked to the H5N1 (search) strain of the disease.
That strain has swept through poultry populations in many parts of Asia since 2003 and jumped to humans, killing 65 people, mostly through direct contact with sick fowl.
While there have been no known cases of person-to-person transmission, World Health Organization officials and other experts have been warning that the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people. In a worst-case scenario, millions could die.
Three influenza pandemics have occurred over the last century and "the likelihood of another is very high, some say even certain," Leavitt said after meeting with Thai health officials to review the their preparations.
"Whether or not H5N1 is the virus that will ultimately trigger such a pandemic is unknown to us," he said at a news conference. "The probability is uncertain. But the warning signs are troubling. Hence we are responding in a robust way."
Leavitt's tour comes after President Bush last month established the "International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza" (search) to coordinate a global strategy against bird flu and other types of influenza.
Leavitt said "containment" was the first line of defense against the illness, encouraging countries to step up development and production of vaccines and strengthen efforts to detect any cases of human transmission early.
Thai Public Health Minister Suchai Charoenratanakul said Thailand would contribute at least 5 percent of its antiviral drug supplies to a proposed Southeast Asian regional stockpile.
World Heath Organization Director General Dr. Lee Jong-wook said preparation was the key to preventing a flu epidemic such as the one that struck in 1918, killing an estimated 40 million to 50 million people.
"Now we know in advance what is happening and we have to prepare ourselves. That is our duty," he said.
Also Monday, Turkey and Romania slaughtered thousands of birds after both countries said they detected the disease, and the European Union and other countries banned the import of poultry from the two nations. Bird flu has not been confirmed by expert laboratories, however, and it is unknown whether the poultry deaths in either location involve the H5N1 strain.
Nonetheless, some 40,000 birds in eastern Romania were to be slaughtered in coming days, authorities said.
"I think it's better to take these preventive measures now," even without confirmation of H5N1, Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu said Sunday.