Australia tests emergency response to bird flu outbreak

Emergency service crews in three of Australia's biggest cities conducted exercises Tuesday to test the government's response to a hypothetical outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus. Police, government officials and representatives of the poultry industry participated in the so-called desktop test, which was conducted jointly in Sydney, Melbourne and the southern city of Adelaide. "The exercise will demonstrate how well prepared we are, but also where there are gaps in our knowledge or weaknesses in our response," Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran told reporters in Canberra. "We're confident we will pass muster, generally speaking at least, but we want to strive to do better."

Health Minister Tony Abbott said the simulation would be backed up with an even bigger exercise next year dealing with a human pandemic scenario.

"But to try to actually have a real time exercise ... is very disruptive so it takes an enormous amount of preparation and a great deal of cost," he said. "We are determined to have a full-scale, real-time human bird flu exercise in the second half of next year."

The Victoria state Agriculture Minister Bob Cameron said the exercises would test the ability of state and federal governments to work together to contain a major outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus in birds.

"It's a realistic proposition which we hope never occurs," Cameron told reporters. "What we want to test is people's responsiveness, the ability of agencies to work together across the whole nation." He said emergency teams would also be forced to deal with the emergence of flu-like symptoms in poultry workers.

"In a situation where we are dealing with influenza there would be a great deal of public panic and we have to test our system in terms of dealing with that," he said. At least 68 people have died from the H5N1 bird flu virus since it emerged in Asia in 2003 _ but there have been no recorded cases of the virus in Australia, reports the AP. I.L.

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