Region To Stockpile Antiviral Bird Flu Drug

Amid ongoing fears that an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu could trigger a deadly pandemic, health officials representing Cam­bodia and 10 other Asian nations have vowed to create a regional stockpile of antiviral drugs to battle the bug.

The draft agreement to set up a shared medication stockpile was reached at the Sixth Conference on Health Promotion in Bangkok last week, said Sok Touch, director of the Ministry of Health’s Com­municable Disease Depart­ment.

“It’s a good pre-emptive measure,” said Sok Touch, who represented Cambodia at the informal discussion. “If we have this region­al agreement we can work to control [avian influenza] in a country where it may break out, and then stop it from spreading to other countries.”

Nations pledging to establish the regional supply would contribute 5 percent of the antiviral drugs in their stock for a central medication bank, the location of which is still to be negotiated.

The regional bank would deliver the antiviral drugs to any member country facing a bird flu outbreak.

“It’s important because we think that our own region may be the epicenter of the next pandemic if the [strain] mutates,” Sok Touch said. “We still rely on the world com­­munity for this, but we must also rely on the region.”

Far from regional countries, where the virus has killed 57 people since 2003 and where epidemiologists believe the strain is en­trenched, Western nations have been ordering tens of millions of doses of the pricey medication Ta­miflu made by a Swiss drug manufacturer for nearly $4 per capsule.

The US, for instance, has re­cently secured enough Tamiflu, currently considered the most effective drug to treat bird flu, to cover roughly 2.3 million Ameri­cans.

The UK has ordered enough of the medication to protect about a quarter of its population.

In Cambodia, where four people have died from bird flu, there are currently about 1,400 doses, most of them donated, to cover a population of roughly 13 million, according to the Phnom Penh office of the World Health Organization.

Dr Megge Miller, an epidemiologist with the WHO’s Communica­ble Dis­ease Surveillance and Re­sponse department, said WHO has been working with the Asian Develop­ment Bank to increase Cambodia’s Tamiflu supply.

“However, getting [antiviral drugs] is one very small component of preparing for a pandemic,” Miller said.

“There are many other measures we can take. And if there is a pandemic case, we’ll be in a much better position to respond to it.”

She emphasized that health officials are working to ensure that the best early warning system possible is in place to respond quickly to an influenza threat.

“But for a country like Cam­bo­dia, where the infrastructure is limited and the resources are not like those of the West, it’s going to be difficult,” Miller said.

Besides securing a stock of anti­viral drugs, preparations discussed at the meeting included 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 bird flu infections and protect themselves from the virus.

Ministry of Health and WHO of­ficials will be meeting before the end of the month to refine the national strategy for responding to a pandemic, Miller said.

Epidemiologists say a pandemic could occur if the H5N1 influenza virus mutates into a deadlier form that could be transmitted from person to person.

This could potentially happen if the bird flu virus hits a person already infected by a human flu vi­rus and the two strains trade genes, experts say.

Besides Cambodia, the other countries that have pledged to take part in the regional drug stockpile are China, Japan, Vietnam, Thai­land, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, Bhutan and Brunei.


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