6 Asian countries test preparedness for possible virus pandemic

Six Asian nations tested their preparedness Tuesday for a possible outbreak of a pandemic caused by a long-feared mutation of the bird flu virus.

Officials representing a variety of agencies in the countries, from tourism to defense, practiced responding to a scenario in which the H5N1 bird flu virus became easier for people to catch.

In a real outbreak, decisions made by the officials, and the time it took to carry out their plans, could determine whether a possible pandemic would spread wildly across the region or die down after quick action.

The six nations China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam which share borders and a history of transmigration, face the possibility of a similar outbreak.

Dr. Preecha Prempree, an epidemiologist from Thailand's Ministry of Health, said the region has the greatest potential of triggering a pandemic. "We think this is a very dangerous point for us. We have to have cooperation in the region," he said.

In the practice scenario, 18 people and three health care workers tested positive in a Malaysian community for bird flu, and it was then found that the H5N1 virus had mutated into a form easily spread between humans.

Two of the biggest challenges the officials discussed were detecting suspected cases and then communicating that information rapidly to each other and the public.

The officials referred to experiences during the 2003 spread of the SARS virus, which emerged in Asia and killed nearly 800 people worldwide. They discussed the best strategies for protecting health care workers, keeping infected people from crossing borders and isolating the sick.

The officials said they typically communicate with each other about outbreaks through e-mail, mobile phone text messages, faxes or phone calls.

Some said the informal system works well because it allows health officials to discuss rumors without waiting for official announcements. Others said they are required by law to go through proper channels before releasing any information.

The two-day simulation comes as several countries in the region are tackling a resurgence of bird flu. Myanmar and Vietnam are both experiencing new outbreaks in poultry, while Laos recently reported its first human case and fatality, reports AP.

The H5N1 bird flu virus remains hard for people to catch, but experts fear it may mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a pandemic. So far, most human cases have been traced to contact with infected birds. At least 168 people have died from the disease since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003.

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