Health experts discuss avian flu with US officials

By Jenny Chou  /  STAFF REPORTER

Wed, Jan 25, 2006 - Page 2

Details of partnership and cooperation between the US and Southeast Asia in combating avian flu were discussed in a Web cam meeting between US government health officials in Washington and health experts in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

A key issue of concern to the participants in Taiwan was the US reaction to the restrictions that have kept Taiwan from fully participating in worldwide influenza pandemic planning measures.

US Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services John Agwunobi said, "The US regrets that we weren't able to get Taiwan to fully participate in global efforts against avian flu along the way."

"The US support for Taiwan's preparedness has been stated before as it has today, and we will continue to support Taiwan in your preparations for citizens of your country" he said.

Bruce Gellin, director of the National Vaccine Program Office (NVPO) of the US Department of Health and Human Services, said that the exchange between the US and Taiwan was vibrant and that several conversations had taken place in areas regarding technique.

No response was made, however, in regards to queries by a reporter from the Chinese-language newspaper the China Times about what concrete plans the US had to involve Taiwan in global planning efforts in view of tensions between Taiwan and China.

An issue of concern for panelists in both Taiwan and Hong Kong was the lack of a stockpile of antiviral drugs in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The concept of a regional stockpile is clearly important, and as global partnership matures and things develop it may become a realistic move over time to establish a stockpile where needed on a regional basis," Agwunobi said.

However, the US officials stressed that antivirals shouldn't be overemphasized as there is no guarantee that the avian-flu virus won't develop a resistance to them.

Gellin said that this possibility was why information about traditional frontline measures -- such as that provided by Taiwan during the Web-cam meeting about SARS -- was so important.

He also stressed the importance of logistics in the use of stockpiles, saying that stockpiles shouldn't be misused, while Agwunobi said that going "the last mile" in distributing drugs to infected areas was most important.

The US officials did say, however, that in the event of an influenza epidemic in Asia they would "throw all their resources at the affected region" if they could do so -- but only on the condition that there was a possibility of "putting out that spark in the forest."

"But if we sense that [the fire] has gone beyond control and is spreading rapidly around the planet, the strategy would change," they said.

In regards to questions from Hong Kong about what specific measures the US government had to work with Asia on avian-flu research, Agwunobi said, "There are many and multiple projects but the bulk of them haven't occurred yet as the cooperation has just come through."