Mon, Dec 22, 2008 - Page 1 News List

COA criticized over response to H5N2

DELAYSComparing epidemic prevention to war, the former director of the council said that when a nation faces an oubreak, the fastest and most accurate tests should be used

By Meggie Lu and Flora Wang  /  STAFF REPORTERS

Former Council of Agriculture minister Lee Chin-lung (李金龍) yesterday accused the authorities of reacting too slowly to the recent outbreak of bird flu in Kaohsiung County’s Luchu Township (路竹).

“Although I have no evidence, it looks very strange and my instinct is that [information pertaining to this case] was not made transparent,” he said.

“What the law says is one thing: People have a right to know about an epidemic as soon as it is confirmed,” Lee said.

Although the council said lab results had only been confirmed yesterday, Lee said: “Some experts are saying the council reacted a bit too slowly. I am of a similar opinion.”

Responding to a statement by the council that to ensure the validity of the results it had conducted two separate viral separation and cultivation tests, Lee said: “If it had been an epidemic, we would have faced dire consequences within those two months.”

“I’m not saying you cannot do the analysis twice, but it is very rarely seen,” Lee said.

Responding to comments by Animal Health Research Institute (AHRI) deputy director Lee Shu-hui (李淑慧) that the test was a complex process that required between 19 and 40 days, Lee said: “She is saying that to [reporters] because [viral analysis] is not their expertise. This is like going [from Taipei] to Kaohsiung. While you could have taken the high-speed rail, you decided to bike there.”

“Epidemic prevention is war — you have to employ the fastest and most accurate way to confirm an infection,” Lee said.

While viral cultivation, which yields an Intravenous Pathogenicity Index such as the one AHRI obtained, was an option, Lee said that RNA sequencing, which can also confirm a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, would take about 10 days.

At a press conference on Saturday, the council said an expert panel had confirmed an outbreak of a low-pathogenic strain of the bird flu virus H5N2 at a chicken farm in Kaohsiung County.

As fears of an outbreak arose on Oct. 21, the council said that while it was analyzing samples from the farm it also launched a epidemic prevention mechanism.

After a bird sample tested positive in a PCR test, which takes one or two days, in October, Lee Shu-hui said her team conducted two consecutive confirmational analyses — the first based on samples collected on Oct. 21 and the second on samples collected on Nov. 12 — to confirm the infection.

“Our first result on Nov. 12 showed what looked like a high-pathogenic strain of H5N2, but as less than 3 percent of chickens died, the reality did not agree with the lab test,” she said.

Aware of the potential for an epidemic, the council ordered a second examination while taking precautionary measures to avoid creating public fear, she said.

However, some experts have questioned the council’s handling of the crisis and raised doubts about transparency.

Earlier last week, former chairman of the interministry avian and pandemic influenza control committee Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), now at Academia Sinica, said that regardless of whether Taiwan had an epidemic or not, the council should have make the information available to minimize public fears.

“If the government had done [everything it could to prevent an epidemic], it should have let people know and informed them that the case was closed,” Chen said.

Meanwhile, Control Yuan member Cheng Jen-hung (程仁宏) said yesterday he would launch a probe into whether the council failed in its duties during the outbreak.

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