Can bird flu pandemic be stopped?!

After poring over old medical records, studying census data and cranking out mathematical models, scientists and health officials are beginning to believe they have a chance to stop a &to=http:// ' target=_blank>bird flu pandemic before it kills millions of people worldwide.

The key: detecting an outbreak early and rushing powerful antiviral drugs to the source to throttle a pandemic at birth before it can bust out of Southeast Asia, carrying sickness and death around the globe. "It is the first time in the history of mankind that anyone has thought about keeping a worldwide pandemic at bay," says William Aldis, the top World Health Organization (WHO) official in Thailand.

But the window of opportunity could close quickly, and the world is not yet prepared to take advantage of it, researchers say. Rich countries are stockpiling antiviral drugs, but there is little available in the impoverished backwaters of Southeast Asia where an outbreak is likely to begin, reports USA Today.

Accordingt o the Age, now that Asian bird flu is threatening to become a pandemic, the work identifying the virus' characteristics has to be done elsewhere in Victoria - such as in the highly secure animal biosecurity laboratory in Geelong. "We can't handle the live virus here in our lab," Mr Hampson says. "We have to rely on other laboratories to help us."

Despite such drawbacks, the country has managed to become what Australia's Chief Medical Officer, John Horvath, believes is one of the best-prepared nations for a flu pandemic. The Federal Government put aside $114 million in last year's budget to build a stockpile of anti-viral drugs, 50 million syringes, 40 million surgical masks and extra &to=http:// ' target=_blank>hospital equipment. This followed an estimate that a major flu pandemic could lead 2.6 million Australians to seek medical attention, put 58,000 people in hospital, and kill 13,000.

For its preparedness, Australia can probably thank Mr Hampson, who initiated pandemic planning in the mid-1990s. He became concerned about a flu pandemic, and began knocking on the doors of health officials - without much success. "When the chicken flu thing broke out in 1997, people started to listen," he said.

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