Australia: health minister predicts bird flu would almost end international travel

International air travel would virtually stop if bird flu triggered a lethal human pandemic in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia's health minister said today ahead on an international forum on the global threat.

Health Minister Tony Abbott did not directly respond to questions on whether Australia would expel foreigners, close its ports or accept "flu refugees" in the event of a pandemic in Indonesia where bird flu has killed four people this year.

"If there is a pandemic, international travel will almost cease I suspect for a significant period of time," Abbott told Ten Network television. "Regardless of what border controls countries might put on, there will be very few people who'll be wanting to travel."

Asked whether Australia would provide refuge to people attempting to flee the flu in their own countries in the region, Abbott suggested those most at risk would be too poor to relocate.

Abbott was speaking before Australia hosts an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum of health and disaster officials in the east coast city of Brisbane Monday to coordinate the international response to a human pandemic that could result from the virulent H5N1 strain of the bird flu mutating into a form easily transmitted between humans.

H5N1 has already killed at least 62 people after jumping from sick birds as well as millions of poultry is Asia since 2003.

The two-day meeting is expected to be the largest ever gathering of the 21 APEC members' chief pandemic disaster managers.

Australia's bird flu strategy has come under criticism from some experts who say Canberra plans to waste most of its stockpile of anti-viral drugs by using it as preventative medication for essential workers instead of saving it for those who contract the disease.

Abbott justified the strategy, saying the anti-virals Tamiflu and Relenza were more likely to prevent the illness than cure it.

Australia had already provided Indonesia with 50,000 courses of anti-viral drugs and invested A$30 million (US$22 million; -19 million) in counter-flu measures in Southeast Asian countries, half of that spent in Indonesia, Abbott said, reported AP.