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US Health Official Pledges Aid in Fight Against Bird Flu

In Indonesia as part of a tour of Asian countries affected by bird flu, the top U.S. health official has promised financial help to combat the disease and emphasized that vigilance was the key to fighting the virus.

Secretary for Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt says surveillance and information exchange are essential in fighting the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus that has killed 60 people in four Asian countries since late 2003.

"Surveillance is very clearly our first line of defense, but it only works if there is transparency, if there is timely sharing of information, and if there is a spirit of cooperation," he said.

Mr. Leavitt made the remarks on Monday in Jakarta, having previously visited Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, along with Indonesia the countries most seriously affected by bird flu.

While most of the people who have contracted the disease have caught it from close contact with infected poultry, scientists are concerned the disease may change to one easily passed between people, causing a pandemic that could kill millions.

Mr. Leavitt says the H5N1 virus has the potential to affect the world economically, socially, and politically.

"The world is a biologically dangerous place right now. Avian influenza is spreading to other nations and to other continents. An outbreak anywhere means that there is risk everywhere," added Mr. Leavitt. "No nation can afford to ignore this. The effects of a pandemic go well beyond personal health. They affect economics, they affect politics, they affect social issues, and social concerns."

Mr. Leavitt also likened the bird flu virus to a forest that was "ripe and ready for a fire."

"Every fire starts with a spark. That spark, if it is discovered at the early onset can be easily put out," he said. "But if it is allowed to spread, it will. So it is with a virus, pandemic preparation is both short term and long term."

Western governments, including the United States, have become increasingly concerned about the spread of bird flu since the outbreak reached Europe, with birds in Romania and Turkey recently testing positive for the virus.

Mr. Leavitt says the U.S. government has committed $25 million to the Asian region to fight the H5N1 virus, with more than $3 million earmarked for efforts in Indonesia.

He said the money would go towards creating an early warning system for surveillance and diagnosis, containing outbreaks, training rapid response teams, and public information campaigns.

Mr. Leavitt also announced a U.S. aid package of $2.5 million to help Indonesia combat a recent outbreak of polio.