Senior Bush administration officials who toured Southeast Asia on a fact-finding mission on avian flu said Friday they returned optimistic those countries will cooperate in efforts to monitor and contain the disease. But U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told reporters avian flu will inevitably be spread farther, by migratory birds.
The high-level U.S. team that visited seven Southeast Asian countries in the last two weeks reported their findings at a news conference Friday, even as cases of avian flu began showing up in Central Europe.
At the briefing at the State Department, Secretary Leavitt said there was no reason for undue alarm or surprise over the reports from Europe, since it has long been assumed that the virus would jump from farm-yard poultry to migratory birds. "The virus has begun to use wild birds as its carrier. And it will go across predictable, migratory fly-ways. It has been carried now into other countries, notably Turkey, Romania, others that have been mentioned. And there is no reason to think it will not go to more. It is a natural phenomenon that is both predictable and certain," he said.
Secretary Leavitt said that while some 60 human deaths have been reported from avian flu in Southeast Asia, all of those who died are believed to have gotten the ailment from contact with infected birds.
He said there are still no confirmed reports of human to human transmission, and it is uncertain if that will ever occur.
But he said if it does, there will be risk everywhere and thus the need for international cooperation in monitoring, reporting and dealing with potential outbreaks.
The U.S. team visited Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia on the mission, which was a follow-up to an 80-nation Washington conference hosted by the State Department early this month.
While not providing details, Mr. Leavitt said the degree of commitment to fight the disease varied among the countries visited.
But he said the trip, overall, was very helpful and that he came away with some confidence that dependable information-sharing relationships have been established, and that U.S. aid money against avian flu will be effectively used.
Under-Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky said the United States has thus far committed $38 million to international efforts, including training veterinary staff, monitoring wild-bird movements, setting up laboratories and helping foreign governments with training and preparedness plans.
The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, also stressed the importance of public awareness and media coverage of the avian flu issue.
He said the flu epidemic that killed ten of millions of people worldwide in 1918 was not properly tackled partly because governments suppressed information about the seriousness of the threat. But Mr. Natsios said that is unlikely to happen now, in an inter-connected world. "Public information on a sustained basis over a period of time will begin to sensitize all levels of bureaucracy, even in autocratic governments. Because you know, you can't control the Internet, you can't control radio. People listen to this stuff. That will discipline all public systems, and will, I think, influence the behavior of people even at the village level, if they understand the nature of the threat and how we have to combat it," he said.
Mr. Natsios said he was sensitive to the anguish of subsistence farmers in Asia and elsewhere whose flocks of chickens and other birds have had to be destroyed to curb the spread of flu. He said the U.S. aid agency is working on incentive plans to compensate such farmers to encourage them to report sick birds to local health officials.