U.S. President George Bush has announced a major initiative to protect Americans, and other nations, from a global outbreak of bird flu. Several Asian and Pacific nations are also taking steps to deal with the threat of a pandemic. Fears of such a scenario have grown as the disease has spread westward from Asia to Europe.
Tuesday, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S. President George Bush called on Congress to approve a $1.2 billion plan to create enough vaccine to protect 20 million Americans against a deadly strain of bird flu.
He says the U.S, as well as all nations, must take all preventive steps possible. ?A flu pandemic would have global consequences, so no nation can afford to ignore this threat. And every nation has responsibilities to detect and stop its spread.?
Mr. Bush said the United States must be prepared to detect outbreaks anywhere in the world, stockpile vaccines and anti-viral drugs, and be ready to respond at the federal, state and local levels in the event a pandemic reaches the United States.
The deadly H5N1 strain has ravaged poultry farms across Southeast Asia since 2003, resulting in the culling of tens of thousands of birds in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
In the past month, the virus -- believed to be transmitted by migratory birds -- has been diagnosed in Europe.
In Southeast Asia, more than 100 people -- mostly poultry workers -- became sick from bird flu.
At least 62 people have died.
Now scientists fear the virus might mutate into a strain that can be transmitted easily from human to human.
So far, there is no vaccine for the deadly H5N1 strain.
Patients diagnosed with the virus are being treated with anti-viral drugs, particularly Tamiflu. Many nations are already stockpiling the popular drug, creating large orders for manufacturer Roche Holding AG. Last week, Roche temporarily suspended shipments of Tamiflu to pharmacies in the U.S. and Canada to prevent patients from stockpiling the drug and depleting supplies ahead of the human flu season.
Emergency response officials from Asian and Pacific nations are also taking steps. At this week's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brisbane, Australia they announced plans for a "mock bird flu" drill early next year.
Doug Chester, Australia's ambassador to APEC, says experts will use "desktop" exercises to identify potential problems in preparedness and communication. "Whilst it is a serious threat, there is an element of scare-mongering that is undermining effective planning in some economies and it is causing unnecessary economic damage to some economies."
Mr. Chester says APEC officials discussed dispatching regional experts, to assist countries facing an outbreak.