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Governments move to boost anti-viral stockpiles

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WHO's Africa office says it will strategically pre-position Tamiflu and protection equipment
Southeast Asian countries have agreed to boost anti-viral stockpiles and consolidate regional efforts to prevent a spread of the H1N1 swine flu.

"Everybody is vulnerable to developing influenza at this stage," said Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque, who chaired the meeting of regional health ministers in Bangkok on 8 May, adding that the flu "admittedly has more sudden effects" that put the very young and the very old at a higher risk of infection.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 44 people have died, most of them in Mexico, while 2,371 people have been confirmed infected in some 22 countries.

A draft statement to be adopted by the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) health ministers and their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea said they agreed to "assess the potential need and increase stockpiling of essential medicines, medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the level necessary for effective response".

It noted that about 90 percent of the global vaccine production was concentrated in Europe and the USA. "Despite the fact that other regions have begun to acquire the technology to produce influenza vaccines, access to effective pandemic vaccines is a major problem in this region," the statement read.

The ministers also agreed to establish a system for sharing national stockpiles of medicines and supplies in case of outbreaks, as well as devising a "border control strategy" that would include screening people leaving areas where the virus was detected.

Meanwhile, Japan said it was donating half a million doses of anti-viral medicines, as well as protective health gear to the region in case the virus spreads.

The statement did not, however, give any timelines for carrying out the measures, and the ministers urged against any curbs on travel, according to one Filipino official who was privy to the talks.


A Indonesia Health Official sprays disinfectant against a possible swine flu outbreak at a farm in Cilebut, Bogor Regency, West Java Province, Indonesia
Photo: Jefri Aries/IRIN
44 people of died of swine flu worldwide
Duque said the meeting aimed to hammer out ways to stop the flu from spreading in the region, one of the world's most populous, where many are still mired in poverty with limited access to healthcare facilities.

"One of the main agendas for the ASEAN health ministers was to compare our pandemic flu preparedness and action plans," he said.

The ministers, he said, would soon harmonise the rules and responses without setting forth a specific deadline. These rules include port monitoring and boosting stockpiles of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu.

"We want to review what countries are doing in terms of adequacy of personal protective equipment - if one country has a lot more, can it share it with another? We want to know what each country is doing in terms of disease surveillance based on the recommendation of the WHO," he said.

ASEAN states would also come up with stockpiling standards for Tamiflu.

"We will harmonise all of these. The desire and the objective is to come up with a binding resolution to all member countries that will be submitted to the forthcoming World Health assembly" on 18 May in Geneva, he said.

While there is no reason to panic, Duque said countries were advised to check on their Tamiflu stocks - the Philippines, for example, has 800,000 capsules in government hands and about 200,000 kept by private hospitals.

The government would boost its stock since about eight million Filipinos - or about 10 percent of the population - live and work in foreign countries, he said, noting that about one million capsules were needed for the public health system.

Singapore, where 33 people were killed by SARS, said it had learned its lesson and was now better prepared to handle pandemics. However, it noted that border patrols could not be a foolproof way of stopping the flu spreading.

"We should not be complacent. This ... flu is not the same as the SARS virus," said Singapore Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

WHO Western Pacific spokesman Peter Cordingley, in a recent interview with IRIN, said Southeast Asia was better prepared compared with the rest of the world.

The SARS epidemic in 2003, which claimed about 800 lives worldwide, forced nations in Asia to improve surveillance and put in place "the right infection control mechanisms", he said.

"This is a new virus. Every country in the world is at risk," the WHO official warned.


See also:
THAILAND: Learning the lessons from SARS and bird flu
ASIA: Action taken across the region to counter swine flu

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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