Japan to stockpile antiviral drugs to help chicken farmers

Japan's government will stockpile antiviral drugs and help chicken farmers control bird flu in their flocks as part of an action plan to combat an outbreak that could kill as many as 640,000 people in Japan, the government announced Tuesday.

The release of the plan in Japan, which has not yet suffered a human death from the virus, came as anxieties over the illness were spurred by reports over the weekend of new outbreaks in China and Vietnam.

"We need to be sufficiently prepared so we can act promptly in case bird flu spreads to human beings," Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe told reporters Monday. "Rather than deal with matters after it occurs, we need to have measures in place beforehand."

A committee including officials from local governments, medical institutions, and the Health Ministry was to convene on Tuesday to begin discussions on how to meet the plans' objectives.

The plan outlines the measures to be taken should the current form of bird flu, which so far has only been transmitted from animals to other animals or a limited number of humans, were to mutate to a form that can be transmitted between people.

The ministry's scheme calls for the government to stockpile the antiviral drug Tamiflu, assist bird keepers to control and eliminate outbreaks among their flocks, and keep the public alerted to developments.

The action plan set the targeted size of the Tamiflu stockpile at 25 million doses against the assumption that 32 million people, or 25 percent of the population, would become infected.

The plan says between 170,000 and 640,000 people could die in Japan, and between 530,000 and 2 million people would be hospitalized. The current type of bird flu is extremely deadly when transmitted to humans, killing nearly half those who are infected. But Japanese health officials said viruses that are transmitted between humans tend to be less deadly, so that a much larger percentage of people infected under the government's scenario would survive.

Bird flu hit Japan last year for the first time in decades. There have been several outbreaks of the dangerous H5N1 variety among birds in the country, and one confirmed human case in December, but no human deaths have been reported. Hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled.

Reports Saturday of two more outbreaks each in China and Vietnam seem certain to keep the topic in the minds of attendees to the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in South Korea this week. At least 64 people have died of the virus worldwide, reports the AP. I.L.

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