Governments have to work more effective to prepare for 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 Organisation and several U.S. agencies, will also visit Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the country hardest hit by H5N1 with 41 deaths, reports Reuters.
According to Financial Times, WHO and national governments know they need plans in place to develop a suitable vaccine if a human pandemic strain indeed emerges. They are also building up stocks of antiviral drugs such as Roche's Tamiflu, which should help treat victims of the future flu and may help to stop it spreading.
By far the most important step governments can take, however, is to improve surveillance of bird and human populations to enable doctors to stamp out any human outbreak of the disease before it spreads. Health experts believe a combination of quarantine, antiviral drugs and vaccination could stall an incipient epidemic - but only if an outbreak is swiftly identified.
The WHO campaign to deal with bird flu has been a model of efficiency, and it is important that rich countries continue to assist and finance its efforts. Several countries in east Asia - the epicentre of H5N1 and other influenza strains - are having trouble keeping track of the virus. Surveillance in poor nations such as Indonesia and Cambodia remains dangerously inadequate.