The spread of Asia’s deadly bird flu to Europe is a “troubling sign” and the world must work faster to prepare for a potential flu pandemic, U.S. Health Secretary Mike Leavitt said on Friday.
Speaking to reporters in Hanoi on a tour of bird flu-hit Southeast Asia, Leavitt said outbreaks in Turkey and Romania underscored the need for urgent action against the virus which appeared to be spreading through migratory birds.
“The world is a biological dangerous place right now. An enemy avian virus known as H5N1 is establishing a presence in nations all over the world,” Leavitt said.
He said outbreaks “that have occurred in Turkey and Romania and other countries along the natural flyways are certainly troubling signs”.
European countries tightened border controls on poultry and poultry products on Thursday after tests confirmed a bird flu outbreak in Turkey was H5N1, the same virus which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since 2003.
Test results to determine the strain of virus infecting three ducks in Romania were expected on Saturday.
Experts suspect migratory birds, usually wildfowl which are silent carriers of the virus, may have carried the disease to Europe along their natural migratory routes.
“It will require a measured response on all of our parts if this continues to occur, as it inevitably will,” Leavitt said.
The World Health Organization said on Friday the chances of human cases had increased with the virus’ spread into new areas and it urged intensified surveillance of flocks and humans.
'Stop it in birds'
Leavitt, accompanied by top U.S. health experts on the fact-finding mission to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam --where 41 people have died since 2003 -- said fighting the disease at farm level was a top priority.
“H5N1 is mostly an animal disease today. To stop it from spreading to humans, we have to stop it in birds,” Leavitt said in a region where the virus is endemic despite the slaughter of millions of birds.
Animal health experts say Thailand and Vietnam have had some success in containing bird flu, but still have not wiped it out.
The picture is more bleak in poorer countries such as Cambodia and Laos. Public health infrastructure is minimal and government budgets cannot afford a mass poultry vaccination program such as the one underway in Vietnam.
The United States has pledged $25 million to the region for training, supplies, lab equipment, village-based surveillance systems and public education.
Equally important is transparency in a region where some nations have been accused of blocking proper monitoring by failing to report cases or giving too few samples to scientists.
“While there may be short term costs to us individually or collectively, the burden of being secretive and lacking transparency would be catastrophic,” Leavitt said.