The UN Secretary General’s chief coordinator for avian influenza, Dr David Nabarro, made a one-day visit to Cambodia on Friday to assess the level of Cambodia’s preparedness for an influenza pandemic resulting from a mutation in H5N1, or bird flu virus.
“Knowledgeable researchers say that H5N1 is showing signs of changing in a way that may make it more likely to be transmitted from human to human,” he said. “It is quite possible that you could be the country where pandemic influenza starts.”
Nabarro said that pandemic flu could break out at any time, and if it did the authorities and World Health Organization would move quickly to isolate the area affected. He added that some countries could choose to bar travel from Cambodia if that happened.
Asked about reports Cambodia only has a few hundred doses of Tamiflu, the major known treatment for the disease, Nabarro said the WHO is in talks with the drug’s manufacturer to increase stockpiles worldwide.
UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Gardner said that Cambodia will need an estimated $18 million to be spent over 6 to 18 months to prepare for the possible mutation and pandemic. Four Cambodians have died of avian influenza, but there have been no recorded cases of the disease since March.
“There may be individual cases occurring that have gone undetected,” Nabarro said, “Frankly, that is not the major public health concern: What needs to be detected is evidence of sustained, human to human transmission.”
Nabarro said that Cambodia is better prepared for a possible pandemic than countries he declined to name. He praised efforts to train village veterinarians and a package of public service announcements about to be released to the public.
Public health messages will soon be aired on TV warning people to wash their hands with soap after handling chickens, to stay away and keep children away from sick birds, and to cook poultry and eggs thoroughly before eating them, Gardner said. “Improved hygiene is very effective against the disease,” Nabarro said.
He also said a compensation program is being set up to reimburse farmers who report sick chickens. “If farmers are not assured that the loss of their chickens will be compensated, they will not report the disease,” he said, adding that rather than cash, what farmers really want is replacement chickens for food security.