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APEC Leaders Drafting Regional Flu Plan

Senior officials from 21 Asia-Pacific countries are meeting in Vietnam to draft a regional plan to cope with a potential new influenza pandemic. Officials hope the plan can prevent a particularly deadly strain of bird flu from becoming a human virus, and at the same time want to prepare for the possible economic blow.

Officially, the delegates from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation member states are meeting in Vietnam this week to plan for an influenza pandemic that could come from many different sources.

But looming over this week's three-day APEC conference is the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has swept from Asia to Europe and Africa in the last year, killing millions of birds. At least 113 people have died of it worldwide in the past three years, most of them in Asia.

H5N1 is mostly a bird disease caught by humans in rare cases through contact with sick poultry. But scientists fear that if H5N1 mutates to become easily contagious among people, millions could die in the first human flu pandemic in decades.

Officials agreed on a plan that will be presented for APEC ministers' approval on Friday. It recommends a two-track approach.

First, countries would try to prevent a pandemic by containing H5N1 in birds. At the same time, they would prepare to treat human victims and keep the global economy running.

Ian Shugart, Canada's assistant deputy health minister, helped draft the plan with other APEC members, including host country Vietnam.

"I think it is a good plan," said Shugart. "It anticipates the way things might happen and addresses what economies need to do to get ready for those kinds of possible outcomes."

The world has not seen a flu pandemic since 1968, when about one million people died, but statistically one breaks out about every 40 years when a new virus emerges for which people have no natural immunity. And with today's frequent air travel, a new flu virus could sweep the world in weeks.

Health experts say controlling H5N1 and other flu strains in poultry could slow or even prevent their mutation into a new human virus. Early detection of any human outbreaks would also allow anti-viral medicines to be rushed into affected areas while vaccines are developed.