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Bird Flu, Radiation Top Agenda for Tokyo Health Meeting

Top-level international health officials say recent outbreaks of bird flu in South Korea emphasize the need for greater preparedness to deal with a potential human influenza pandemic. As Steve Herman reports from Tokyo, the health ministers also discussed responses to the threat highlighted by the recent case of radiation poisoning in Britain.

Officials at the seventh ministerial meeting of the Global Health Security Initiative (GHSI) said here Thursday that recent outbreaks of bird flu among South Korean poultry were a reminder of the danger posed by the H5N1 bird flu virus. They said preparing for a possible human pandemic of bird flu remained their main priority.

The H5N1 virus can already pass, with some difficulty, from sick birds to humans, and has so far killed more than 150 people worldwide. Scientists are concerned it may mutate into a form easily transferable between humans, raising the possibility of a global pandemic that could kill millions.

David Heymann is the World Health Organization's (WHO) Assistant Director-General for communicable diseases. He told reporters in Tokyo Thursday that an effort is underway to increase stockpiles in affected countries of the antiviral drug oseltamivir, also known as Tamiflu.

"This would permit countries where this event might occur to respond with drugs to try to prevent greater spread of human-to-human transmission from the site where it is begun, in other words, to stop a potential pandemic," he said.

The informal annual GSHI meetings bring together health experts and officials from the WHO and Japan, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the United States and the European Union.

The organization aims to strengthen preparedness against influenza pandemics and threats of biological, chemical and nuclear terrorism.

Another topic discussed at the Tokyo conference was the radiation alert in Britain triggered by the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy, from the radioactive chemical polonium-210.

Rosie Winterton, Britain's health services minister, said she brought her colleagues up to date on the Litvinenko case.

"The meeting today certainly provided an opportunity for the U.K. to update colleagues on the current situation," she said. "The GHSI network had been used to communicate the latest situation in terms of the health information to colleagues in other countries."

British authorities on Wednesday said they were now treating the November 23 death of Litvinenko as a murder.