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Rapid Containment Key to Preventing Bird Flu Pandemic

The World Health Organization says it may be possible to prevent or delay a human bird-flu pandemic if countries immediately act to contain outbreaks.

The World Health Organization says rapid intervention at the earliest signs of a human bird-flu outbreak may prevent hundreds of millions of infections and millions of deaths.

The WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, Shigeru Omi, says once there are signs the H5N1 bird-flu virus is spreading among people, there will only be two or three weeks to prevent or at least slow down a global pandemic.

"If some initial sign, initial indication a pandemic happen, we have to immediately pick up, detect this initial sign or signals and we have to implement all the necessary measures," Omi says.

Omi says those measure include giving large numbers of people anti-viral drugs, restricting travel, quarantining infected areas and closing schools. He says all countries must be held accountable for these measures.

"There is a responsibility for countries to implement and improve the quality of surveillance and to implement these public measures such as restriction of movement if there are the signs of the pandemic starts," Omi says.

Omi made the remarks in Jakarta during a ceremony to mark $70 million in aid pledged by Japan to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to fight the H5N1 virus.

The aid includes a stockpile for Southeast Asia of half a million doses of Tamiflu, considered the best treatment for bird flu so far.

ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong says the group's 10 members last year organized themselves to better fight the spread of the bird flu virus.

"In fact, in countries like Thailand and Vietnam the work has been very strong and we believe that the preventive measures have helped us to contain the spread of the disease," Ong Keng Yong says. "So we are using lessons learned from these countries to tackle the potential threat."

The H5N1 virus is now endemic in Asia, where millions of birds have been culled across the region to halt the spread of the disease.

Since 2003, bird flu has infected more than 200 people - mostly in Asia - and killed roughly half of them.

Although most victims have caught the virus from close contact with infected birds, health experts fear the virus may mutate to a form easily passed between humans.