Indonesian president warns of 'catastrophic' devastation if bird flu

Indonesia's president warned Thursday of the devastating effects a human pandemic sparked by bird flu could wreak on the economies of the Asia-Pacific region, calling on nations to work together to prevent the potential catastrophe.

"Our worst nightmare now would be if the avian flu virus finds a way to mutate by swapping human genetic code, which would allow human-to-human transmission," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told businessmen in a speech on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Busan.

"We cannot even begin to imagine the number of people who would be killed," he said. "The impact on our economies would be catastrophic. None of us can afford this."

The comments came a day after China acknowledged its first human cases of bird flu. It said there were two confirmed cases: a 24-year-old woman who died and a 9-year-old boy who recovered. It said the boy's 12-year-old sister, who died, was a suspected case.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, also in South Korea for APEC and other meetings, avoided mentioning bird flu in two speeches delivered Thursday in Seoul and Busan.

The bird flu threat was expected to be a major focus when leaders from the 21 APEC member economies meet Friday and Saturday, with U.S. President George W. Bush pushing to make it a key area for discussion.

Ahead of her departure, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Thursday in Manila that bird flu was among her key concerns. Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also touched on the bird flu issue during a meeting Thursday on the sidelines of APEC.

"What we both agreed was that it was tremendously important that we cooperated and if there were an outbreak no country should try and disguise the problem, there should be total transparency," Howard said.

APEC could serve as a clearinghouse for requests from help, he said. At least 64 people have died in Asia from bird flu after coming into contact with infected fowl. Some 150 million poultry have been killed or culled, but the spread of the disease has continued unabated, with migrating birds carrying it from Asia to eastern Europe and the Middle East, reports the AP. I.L.

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