Government ministers in Southeast Asia have endorsed a United Nations plan to combat the spread of bird flu, before the deadly virus becomes a global health crisis. Bird flu has ravaged the Asian poultry industry, at an estimated cost of billions of dollars to producers. It has killed at least 65 people in Asia, but health officials fear it is only a matter of time before that number escalates into the millions.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations called Friday for "an all-out coordinated regional effort" against the dangerous form of bird flu that has been moving across Asia the past two years.
Among humans, the H5N1 strain has affected only those in close contact with infected birds.
But scientists fear the virus will eventually mutate to a more dangerous form, able to spread rapidly through human populations.
Thursday, the United Nations named a coordinator for its global efforts to counter such an outbreak. Doctor David Nabarro says the number of human deaths could be staggering.
"Let's say the range of deaths could be anything between five and 150 million."
That message has not been lost on U.S. lawmakers. Thursday, the Senate approved up to $4 billion for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to stockpile anti-flu medicine, and prepare for a potential outbreak.
"Experts warn that a global, cataclysmic pandemic is not a question of if, but when," said Senator Bill Frist, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader.
Added Senator Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate Minority Leader, "This flu is going to strike us all, me, my children, my grandchildren, and if they get it, half of them are going to die."
The only drug approved in the United States to prevent the spread of human flu strains is Tamiflu, which doctors in Asia are currently using to treat people infected with bird flu. But the drug is in short supply in the U.S.
U.S. health officials want to stockpile enough pills to treat 20 million people, but currently, there are only enough pills to treat just more than 2 million.