Ministers attending an Asia-Pacific conference on avian flu said on Monday border closures were an option in the event of a pandemic, but said this was only a remote possibility.
“Borders and airports could of course be shut down in the last phase of a pandemic,” said Vietnamese Vice Minister of Agriculture Bui Ba Bong, on the sidelines of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. “But that is not the situation we are facing at the moment.”
His comments were echoed by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, who cited medical experts as saying there was only a 10 percent chance that bird flu would mutate into a virus transmittable from human to human.
The H5N1 avian influenza is still primarily a bird disease, but it has infected 121 people and killed 62 since 2003, while tens of millions of birds have died of infection or been culled.
Principal pandemic and disaster management officials from all 21 APEC economies are attending the forum in Brisbane to discuss regional responses to any outbreak of the disease.
Cambodia’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Prak Thaveak Amida said controlling the spread of avian flu across borders was central to his country’s disaster planning, given the disease is “at Cambodia’s front gate” after incidents in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam.
Downer insisted any cover-up of avian flu outbreaks would be a “true human catastrophe” given that speedy identification of cases is the greatest challenge facing the international community, but he was confident APEC was focussed after Monday’s “promising stocktake” of preparedness.
“You don’t learn to dance on the day of the party,” agreed Doug Steadman of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “You have to practise, and that’s what we’re doing here to make sure we have the plans and that we can implement them effectively.”
Steadman is drawing on Canada’s first-hand experience of SARS and avian flu in recent years to instruct delegates about the importance of a water-tight plan, particularly as “there is still time for prevention before a pandemic”.
The meeting comes as the Australian Medical Association (AMA) said regional bird flu planning should be based on information and preparedness and not on fear and panic.
“People need to be able to get on with their lives without the prospect of some sort of ornithological Armageddon creating fear in the community,” AMA president Dr Mukesh Haikerwal said in a statement on Monday.
“People need to understand that the present avian flu virus cannot cause a pandemic because it is barely infectious to humans. You have to work very hard to catch it,” he said, adding that early warning systems to detect and identify the disease and to monitor its progress were essential.