Governments have to work harder and faster to prepare for an inevitable bird flu pandemic, U.S. Health Secretary Michael Leavitt said on Monday as he began a tour of Southeast Asian nations hit by the virus.
“Three times in this century we have experienced pandemic influenza and they will come again. We must be ready,” Leavitt told Thai and U.S. health officials in Bangkok.
“Our preparations are not yet complete nor are they adequate,” said Leavitt, who is in the region to urge cooperation in containing the disease which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since it arrived in late 2003.
Experts have been saying since then that the H5N1 avian influenza is the world’s top health threat, but policy efforts in the United States to battle the virus have reached a peak only in recent weeks.
Leavitt, leading a group that includes top officials from the World Health Organization and several U.S. agencies, will also visit Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the country hardest hit by H5N1 with 41 deaths.
The WHO has urged nations in the region to draw up pandemic preparedness plans and stockpile antiviral drugs known to reduce the effects of avian influenza. But experts say impoverished Cambodia and Laos will need help.
“For all of us, the best defense is containment. To find it and find it soon and then work as an international community to contain it,” Leavitt said.
“That requires all of us to act in a way that is both transparent and cooperative,” he added.
Experts fear H5N1 could mutate into a virus which spreads easily among humans, creating a pandemic that might kill millions. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide.
Weekend reports of bird flu outbreaks in Turkey and Romania have raised fears that the disease is spreading further from Asia. Authorities are testing to determine if the strain is H5N1.
Russia and Kazakhstan have already had outbreaks.