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World prepares for pandemic

24th May 2007

The United States defence department has announced its plan for dealing with a possible influenza pandemic, including learning from Singapore's experience of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

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Officials said the department had teamed up with other federal agencies, and was as ready as it could be, given the current situation with avian influenza, or bird flu, a possible candidate for the next pandemic which experts warn is inevitable.

The Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan, part of the Bush administration's initiative on pandemic preparedness, is aimed at informing the public about the government's response to a pandemic.

The Department of Defense will work with the Department of Homeland security, using its expertise in biological threats.

It will tell people how to help curtail the spread and mitigate the effects of a possible flu pandemic.

The 1918 "Spanish" flu pandemic killed millions in the United States.

Containment was a top priority in the plan, which in turn depended on early detection and action, officials said.

The H5N1 virus has already ripped through poultry flocks in Asia and Africa, and has also been found in Europe. It has yet to mutate to a form that is easily transmissible between humans.

The first line of defence against bird flu is isolation and mass poultry culls, which have been continually taking place throughout East and Southeast Asia since 2003.

The defence department plan also included research and development, together with stockpiling of appropriate anti-viral vaccines and medicines, officials said in a statement.

US officials also have conducted extensive interviews with medical experts in Singapore on how they successfully dealt with the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic that occurred worldwide between November 2002 and July 2003.

Meanwhile, China has confirmed an outbreak of the H5N1 virus among poultry in the central province of Hunan, but it reported no human cases of the disease.

The outbreak, in the southern province of Hunan near a lake which is a key stopping point for migratory birds, was contained after more than 11,000 birds were culled, official media reported.

The birds had tested positive for H5N1.

Worldwide, the virus has killed 185 people since 2003, including 15 in China, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has struck an initial deal ensuring that all countries share samples of the virus to further research, and that poor countries get access to any future pandemic flu vaccines.

The resolution adopted by the World Health Assembly commits the WHO to working out rules to guarantee "timely sharing of viruses" between affected countries and WHO, and ensure "fair and equitable distribution of pandemic influenza vaccines at affordable prices in the event of a pandemic."

But it is not specific about what a fair distribution of vaccines or timely sample sharing actually means. It also does not specify the details surrounding the formation of a pandemic flu vaccine stockpile, or how the stockpile would be distributed.

Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, welcomed the approval of the first US vaccine for humans against H5N1.

"To date, H5N1 avian influenza has remained primarily an animal disease, but should the virus acquire the ability for sustained transmission among humans, the potential for an influenza pandemic would have grave consequences for global public health. Pandemics happen, and we must minimise the impact of the next pandemic when it comes," he said in a statement on the department's website.

He said his department had been making significant investments in vaccines, antivirals, and research, awarding US$1 billion in contracts in 2006 to develop cell-based vaccines against both seasonal and pandemic influenza in the hope of vaccinating all US residents within six months of the declaration of a pandemic.

"Also, we are working on dose-sparing measures to enable us to produce more treatment courses for more people...We have also developed community mitigation strategies should a pandemic break out and continue to encourage vigorous state and local planning," Leavitt said.

He said the approval was the result of a collaborative effort between the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, which funded the vaccine research through its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. To date, the health and human services department had purchased 13 million doses of this vaccine, enough to cover 6.5 million people, he added.

The department provides information to the public via its website, www.pandemicflu.gov.

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