July 28, 2006

Asian officials make pact to tackle bird flu

By Nita Bhalla and Kamil Zaheer

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Asian countries hit by bird flu made
plans on Friday to join forces to fight the H5N1 virus, which
killed a teenager in Thailand and was found in chickens in Laos
this week.

It was the first human case in Thailand this year and the
first outbreak in Laos since 2004. The cases were reminders
that the virus, which has killed 134 people out of 232 known to
be infected, will not soon be eradicated.

In the "Delhi Declaration" -- agreed after a two-day
meeting sponsored by the World Health Organization -- ministers
and senior officials from 11 Asian countries, including China,
Indonesia, India and Thailand, agreed to share details about
their checks into outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza.

They also pledged to collaborate to develop and produce
drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests and promote research.

Thai officials, shaken by Monday's death of the 17-year-old
boy, said they would push for the use of the drug Tamiflu in
suspected cases rather than wait for lab results.

"If we have unusual deaths of chickens, even in the
backyard, and a patient gets fever, even if not severe as in
pneumonia, doctors have to start Tamiflu without any results of
the laboratory," Thawat Suntrajarn, director-general of
Thailand's Department of Disease Control, told Reuters at the
meeting in New Delhi.

Tamiflu, made by Roche AG under license from Gilead
Sciences, does not cure bird flu but seems to help patients
survive if taken early enough.

Doctors initially suspected the teenager in the northern
province of Pichit was suffering from dengue hemorrhagic fever
and did not give him Tamiflu, even though he had been disposing
of dead chickens, Thawat said.

Thai Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan demanded
quicker investigations of suspicious bird deaths, and more
honesty from villagers about possible outbreaks.

"We can't wait for the disease to happen. We have to go
after it, to look for it in every house," she said.


Pichit livestock chief Pracha Assavametha said owners of
infected fighting cocks did not report the outbreak.

"Villagers were reluctant to inform the authorities when
their cocks were dying because they were expensive," Pracha
said at a town hall meeting about the outbreak.

The H5N1 virus remains largely a bird disease, but it has
spread across much of the world in the past year. Experts fear
it could evolve into a form that easily infects people, in
which case it would cause a pandemic that could kill millions.

Health experts consider impoverished countries, like Laos
and Cambodia, weak links in the global fight against the virus
because basic health care barely exists outside urban areas and
it is difficult to monitor birds for the virus.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization said H5N1 had
been found in Laos on a commercial farm 15 miles south of the
capital, Vientiane, where about 2,500 chickens died last week.

"We have not had anything like this since 2004, so now we
have to find where it comes from and make sure it doesn't
continue," FAO technical adviser Ricarda Mondry said.

Other countries are reporting some success.

India, which reported its last outbreak of bird flu in
poultry in April, said it planned to declare itself free of
avian influenza around mid-August after it put in place
widespread surveillance and reporting mechanisms.

India is close to developing its own vaccine against avian
flu for poultry, and officials said once it proved to be
commercially viable, they would share expertise with other

Asian nations also promised to bridge the lack of
coordination between farm and health departments, which
officials said was hampering the fight against the virus.

(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler in Bangkok)