Bird flu claims another life as WHO raises vaccine concern | Asia Pacific

Bird flu claims another life as WHO raises vaccine concern

Bird flu claims another life as WHO raises vaccine concern

Updated 20 March 2012, 5:05 AEDT

Bird flu has claimed yet another life in Indonesia, with health authorities confirming that a five-year-old girl from Central Java who died two weeks ago was infected with the H5N1 virus.

The disease has killed 186 people since 2003. Although it's a tiny fraction compared to the death tolls from malaria or HIV, bird flu's potential to start a pandemic remains a serious concern to the World Health Organisation.

Corinne Podger

PODGER: When birdflu first re-emerged in Asia four years ago, it was believed outbreaks might be confined to the cooler northern months of October to March. But it's gradually become clear the virus can survive in warmer temperatures. This has prompted media speculation in Indonesia that the virus may have mutated to become more stable at higher temperatures. That's rejected by the WHO's western pacific region spokesman Peter Cordingly.

CORDINGLY: Influenza viruses change all the time, that's what they do for a living, they change. And this one, this avian virus, is changing all the time, but to WHO's knowledge, there's been no change that would a) make it more likely to pass between humans and set off a pandemic, and b) to be more resistant to changes in weather.

PODGER: The latest Indonesian fatality comes as Vietnam faces its first probable human case of birdflu in 18 months. Tests on a 30-year-old man who's seriously ill in hospital have shown H5N1 infection. Dr Cordingley says that if it's disappointing, but not a surprise.

CORDINGLY: This virus is endemic in Vietnam. They do very well in controlling it, but they recognise it's in the environment. We have seen outbreaks in Vietnam over the past few months. We 're not surprised to see a human case. We're disappointed, because the Vietnamese are doing very very well in surveillance and public education, but this kind of thing is to be expected. It doesn't change the fact that the Vietnamese have done extraordinarily well. I mean before this case they hadn't had one since I think November 2005, so you can see how well they're doing.

PODGER: The WHO's Vietnam spokeswoman Dida Connor says the fact the infection was picked up quickly is a proof the resources Hanoi has ploughed into keeping abreast of birdflu are working.

CONNOR: They've done a very good job in picking up cases and the cases are not good news, but on the other hand it's good news in the sense that it shows the surveillance system is working.

PODGER: New outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry have not been confined to East Asia. In Pakistan, thousands of chickens have been culled at three poultry farms on the outskirts of Islamabad, while Bangladesh has seen dozens of H5N1 outbreaks at farms around the country. Dr Cordingley says there have been outbreaks further afield than that.

CORDINGLY: We're now seeing fresh reports in the last 24 hours of it showing up in Nigeria, so anywhere between here and there is likely to have outbreaks in poultry. The virus is settled in the environment.

PODGER: That sobering news comes as the WHO confirmed a huge shortfall in the capacity of drug firms to make enough anti-flu vaccine to cope with a pandemic. If one were to occur today, barely one in six people worldwide could be supplied with a vaccine within six months. Dr Cordingley says the WHO's latest pandemic advice is that governments adopt strategies which assume a vaccine won't be available -- such as quarantining and isolation, and bans on public meetings.

CORDINGLY: Even if they ramp up production of vaccine at the start of a pandemic, it will probably take six months to produce enough to make it available even to the industrialised world in sufficient numbers. As for the developing world, they probably won't get much of a sniff of it at all. And six months? Well, who knows what the virus might do, with global transport being what it is right now, it could have gone round the world once already in six months.

PODGER: That seems to confirm Indonesia's concerns, which earlier this year prompted Jakarta to stop sending local virus samples to the WHO, over concerns any vaccine developed from them would be unaffordable for ordinary Indonesians. The WHO has welcomed Jakarta's decision last week to resume sending the samples, but Dr Cordingley says the process of passing them on needs to be speeded up.

CORDINGLY: We must work to find a more equitable solution to this, but meanwhile we need to know if the virus is changing, we need those samples to make sure that in this preparatory work for a vaccine, that we're actually working with the right strain of the virus and not with one that has actually disappeared.

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