International avian flu specialists gathered in Taipei yesterday to give an update on the spread of the disease.
Masato Tashiro, director of the Department of Viral Diseases and Vaccine Control at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, warned that cases in which the virus transmitted from birds to humans had begun to rise recently and human-to-human virus transmissions are likely to be seen in the near future.
"Avian-human transmission happens sporadically, but the number of cases are increasing," Tashiro said, "Flu viruses are constantly undergoing mutations, which could result in human-to-human virus transmissions, which is the worst case scenario."
Despite this tendency, Tashiro said efforts should still be made to contain bird to human transmissions.
Tashiro is heavily involved in influenza research for the WHO. He said the organization has been monitoring how the virus changes and had developed vaccines from the bird flu strain which caused the outbreak in Vietnam in 2004.
However, it has been found that the viruses prevalent in Indonesia and China recently are different from the Vietnamese strain, he added.
The WHO has since developed another group of vaccine candidates, of which one is now designated as the prototype. It has been distributed to pharmaceutical companies for mass production. The drug is currently undergoing clinical trials, Tashiro said.
According to Tashiro, the vaccine was developed from modified pathogenic viruses. He said the process of producing the vaccine is challenging, given that the viruses are highly contagious and might accidentally contaminate the vaccine producers as well as the inoculated chicken eggs.
While storing an adequate amount of Tamilflu is essential in preventing an outbreak, Tashiro said much more needs to be done.
"The WHO's containment strategy requires a lot of preparation, it includes a surveillance system as well as a reporting and information mechanism," Tashiro said, "But infrastructure in many Asian countries is not organized enough."
Tashiro added that an avian flu case needs to be contained within three weeks. After three weeks, the infection will accelerate to the extent that makes it difficult to contain.
The symposium took place as China's Guangdong Province reported on Thursday the death of a man from suspected avian flu. The Swiss government also confirmed on Friday that it had found the H5N1 strain in dead wild birds.
Medical professionals from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan attended the symposium and shared their experiences in combating epidemic diseases, including bird flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
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Chou said an outbreak in Taiwan would have a serious impact on the poultry industry, adding that the government is now more concerned about birds smuggled into the country and patients who may not seek medical attention immediately after any suspected cases emerge.