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ASEAN Sees Close Cooperation on Bird Flu, Disaster Relief, Crime

The secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations says member countries have stepped up their cooperation in the fight against bird flu and transnational crime and improved their ability to cope with natural disasters.

Addressing an Asia Society luncheon in Hong Kong, ASEAN's Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said several member nations initially believed they could contain their bird flu problems internally. But there is now general agreement, he says, that avian flu can only be tackled through close cross-border cooperation.

Mr. Ong says ASEAN countries have set up a regional surveillance and alert network.

"It will still take some time to perfect the system, but at least in terms of catching the outbreak, immediately informing the other countries that an outbreak has happened, we have become quite effective with that," he said. "There are still pockets of inadequacy, especially in terms of getting bureaucracy in all different departments mobilized, but I think in the next couple of weeks this will be corrected."

Mr. Ong admits some member nations of ASEAN lack transparency in the information they release about bird flu, and that outbreaks in remote areas are not reported fast enough.

One of the main challenges in fighting avian flu in Asia, the ASEAN official says, is a lack of funds to compensate farmers whose poultry flocks are killed as a precaution. Many farmers in affected areas are reluctant to report outbreaks and even hide sick chickens because their livelihood depends on them.

Another major problem is the lack of knowledge many people have about bird flu. Mr. Ong says he has urged ASEAN members to step up public information efforts.

The secretary-general said two other areas where cooperation among ASEAN members has improved are the fight against transnational crime - including drug trafficking and the trafficking of women and children - and disaster relief.

Since the Asian tsunami nearly a year ago, U.N. agencies, Australia, Japan and other countries have helped on work toward a more systematic regional disaster-management system. ASEAN's Mr. Ong says better early warning systems and better monitoring programs for all natural disasters are now in place, ensuring that affected areas can be reached more quickly and effectively.