US Working to Boost Cambodia's Bird Flu Response System

The United States has agreed to give nearly $2 million to Cambodia to bolster its surveillance and response to any human outbreak of avian influenza. In Phnom Penh, the top U.S. health official expressed concern about Cambodia's ability to respond to disease outbreaks in general.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says the U.S. aid package should help raise Cambodia's level of public health surveillance, so that any human-to-human spread of bird flu can be rapidly identified.

U.S. and U.N. health officials have warned repeatedly that if the H5N1 bird flu virus mutates into a form that is easily passed between humans, a worldwide outbreak could occur, putting millions of people at risk.

Mr. Leavitt is visiting Cambodia with leaders of the World Health Organization and various U.S. health agencies. He says the challenge facing Cambodia is not just building a bird flu response system, but building capacity to respond to epidemics of any nature.

"It is not the money as much as it is we want to join with the government of Cambodia to create the capacity, not just for the avian influenza, but for a pandemic potential in the long run," he explained.

Cambodia, where four people have died of bird flu, has used information campaigns to educate the public about the bird flu virus. But bird flu remains largely misunderstood in this impoverished country, where health services are poor and understaffed, and farmers are more concerned about their livelihoods than the outbreak of a strange disease.

Congress has contributed $25 million to fight the disease in Southeast Asia, where more than 60 people have died since late 2003 of bird flu. The H5N1 virus has been identified in 10 Asian countries leading to the death of 140 million birds.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made it clear the aid package is part of an effort to tackle the bird flu threat on a worldwide basis.

"If you look at the reality of pandemic flu, the entire world is unprepared at this moment, so it is not the kind of thing that you could turn around overnight," Mr. Fauci said. "But we are certainly putting on a very, very strong, full-court press, as we call it, to get this going."

Cambodia will receive nearly $2 million in U.S. aid.

That includes $300,000 to pay for a coordinator from the Department of Health and Human Services to support training and other preparation efforts.

The package will also support village-based surveillance, the training of epidemiologists, the development of community and hospital-based prevention plans, and improvements in laboratory equipment and staffing.

The health experts also visited Thailand and are due to leave Cambodia for Laos on Wednesday. Their schedule also includes Vietnam, and probably Indonesia.

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