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US Health Officials Stress Global Cooperation to Combat Bird Flu

Senior U.S. health officials say that in addition to preparing medical professionals at home for a possible avian influenza pandemic, they are emphasizing global cooperation in the fight against the virus. The officials were presenting Washington's role in global flu preparations to experts from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The health officials, in a videoconference with Asian medical experts Tuesday, stressed their commitment to tackling bird flu in partnership with Asian authorities and presented the U.S. preparedness plan.

Washington's plan involves stockpiling vaccines and antiviral drugs, and coordinating federal, state and local responses. It brings together the medical and veterinary communities, government officials and the private sector.

Dr. Bruce Gellin, director of the U.S. National Vaccine Program Office, said Tuesday his country had learned a lot from how Asian nations tackled the SARS epidemic of 2003.

"Your collective experience with SARS shows that the frontline of defense are traditional public health measures. I think that teaches us a lot," he said.

But Dr. Gellin stressed that national preparedness plans need to be coordinated with the global response, and therefore the U.S. plan also aims to ensure all human and animal outbreaks are detected.

Dr. Gellin added that it was vital to continue financial and technical assistance to the countries hardest-hit by avian influenza.

At an international bird flu conference in Beijing last week, Washington pledged to put more than $330 million into a global pool to help those nations.

The U.S. assistant secretary for health, Dr. John Agwunobi, said during Tuesday's videoconference that the bulk of the investment was intended for Southeast Asia.

But as bird flu has already hit Turkey and could spread further, Dr. Agwunobi says the response of the U.S. government needs to be flexible.

"We like to use the analogy, the concept of a forest fire where the world is a large forest and a small spark occurs in a particular part of this forest," he said. "If we have an opportunity to aggressively throw all our resources at that spark and put out that fire, we will do so. However, if we sense that the spark has gone beyond its initial circle and is now spreading rapidly around the planet our strategy might have to change."

Dr. Agwunobi said transparency is critical in developing a global response to avian flu. He praised Hong Kong for sharing information about the virus and said China has become more transparent about bird flu outbreaks.

At least 80 people have died from avian influenza since 2003. All those infected have caught the disease from birds, but experts worry the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form easily transmissible between humans, sparking a pandemic.