JAKARTA, Indonesia – The World Health Organization said Tuesday it believes a bird flu pandemic can still be prevented if authorities are ready to implement rapid containment measures — from the large-scale distribution of anti-viral drugs to the closure of schools.
WHO's regional director, Dr. Shigeru Omi, told reporters in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, that if such interventions are successful "we may prevent hundreds of millions of serious human infections and millions of deaths."
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"But if we fail, the consequences for societies, economies and global health could be immeasurable," he said, as Asia kick-started its own badly needed stockpile of Tamiflu, one of the few drugs believed effective in treating the disease.
The H5N1 bird flu virus began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003 and has since killed at least 113 people worldwide. So far, most human cases have been linked to contact with infected birds.
Experts, however, fear the virus will mutate into a form that easily spreads from person to person, potentially sparking a global pandemic.
"We still believe it is possible to stop or delay a pandemic by implementing rapid containment measures very quickly," Omi told reporters in Indonesia, which has been hard hit by the disease with 24 confirmed human deaths.
"These measures may include the large-scale administration of anti-viral drugs, quarantine, travel restrictions and social distancing, such as the closure of schools."
Omi reiterated Tuesday that — while the virus has been found in birds in Europe and Africa — Asia, with its high density of poultry and humans, "is still the epicenter of the pandemic threat."
That is why it's so important the region have its own stockpile of Tamiflu, he said, at a ceremony launching a project that will initially stockpile 500,000 tablets of the anti-viral drug for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The drugs — part of a $70.1 million initiative by the Japanese government — will be kept in Singapore.
Indonesia, meanwhile, which has the world's second highest number of human bird flu deaths behind Vietnam, repeated calls for international help in fighting the virus.
Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie said his country had not received any of the $1.9 billion pledged at an international donors conference in China three months ago to fight bird flu.
"We are still waiting for the money that was pledged in Beijing," he said, adding that Indonesia will need $900 million over the next three years.
"Up until now, not a single cent has gone to Indonesia."