US Health Secretary Mike Leavitt is slated to lead a delegation next month to Cambodia to help boost the country’s ability to identify any future avian influenza outbreaks and respond rapidly to a deadly pandemic if one broke out.
Leavitt, who is also scheduled to travel to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos to help streamline regional strategies against the spread of bird flu, is expected to arrive in Cambodia in mid-October, a Western diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity.
“We feel a common and genuine sense of urgency [regarding bird flu],” Leavitt was quoted as saying in a Sept 15 Agence France-Presse article, adding that his Southeast Asia delegation could include the heads of the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Janet Li, an epidemiologist with the Phnom Penh WHO office, said that public health officials are expecting a “high-level delegation” to discuss Cambodia’s bird flu strategies next month, but said she did not know the identities of the team members.
The international delegation to Cambodia, which has seen the deaths of four people to the H5N1 influenza strain, coincides with the latest progress in cooperation between the US and the countries hit by the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which now include Russia and Kazakhstan.
At last week’s UN summit in New York, US President George W Bush announced that Washington would form a new international partnership with Cambodia and about 20 other nations to formulate strategies against the disease, which epidemiologists say is carried by poultry flocks and migrating wildfowl.
Bush recently signed an emergency appropriations bill containing $25 million to prevent and control the spread of bird flu.
US government agencies are currently implementing plans to deploy the money in Southeast Asia, according to a US State Department fact sheet released last week.
Although there have been no cases of bird flu in Cambodia since mid-April, when a 20-year-old Kampot province woman died of the disease, health officials remain on high alert for possible outbreaks, especially since WHO chief Lee Jong-Wook and other top officials have warned that it is only a matter of time before the H5N1 influenza virus becomes transmissible by humans.
Scientists say that a pandemic would occur if the bird flu virus mutates into a deadlier form that could be transmitted from person to person.
This could potentially happen if the virus hits a person already infected by a human flu virus and the two influenza strains trade genes, experts say.
“Since the most recent outbreak we haven’t had any reports in humans or animals—touch wood,” Li said.
Ly Sovann, the chief of the Ministry of Health’s Disease Surveillance Bureau, said that ongoing bird flu education programs are crucial so Cambodians on the front lines of healthcare in the countryside can detect it accurately and report any possible cases back to him.
“We still have to try and find all possible cases, do the lab work, and do the testing,” Ly Sovann said.
“From the time of the outbreak, we have tested over 60 cases of relatives [of bird flu victims], and they were all negative.”
Ly Sovann and his surveillance network, which includes contacts at hospitals and private health clinics across Cambodia, have also been educating local populations about the virus’ dangers so they understand that handling and preparing poultry carcasses must be done carefully and hygienically.
The H5N1 strain has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asian countries, the majority of them in Vietnam, since late 2003. The disease was first reported to have infected people during its initial spread in Hong Kong in 1997.
Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, has recently confirmed its fourth human death from bird flu amid growing global alarm that the bird flu virus will mutate and cause a pandemic.
Besides securing a stock of anti-viral drugs, local health officials say that preparations include upgrading disease surveillance systems-such as improving the monitoring of respiratory and other illnesses among people and animals-and making sure that health workers have the tools to successfully spot infections and protect themselves.