No need for panic, says PM Caging the bird flu
Tuesday, 25 October 2005
BIRD flu is a global threat growing by the day, with more than 60 human
deaths in South-East Asia.
Contaminated birds have been found in Europe and the United Nations has
warned of the spread of the disease to the Middle East and Africa.
In an interview with the the Washington Post, Indonesian Agriculture
Minister Anton Apriyantono said: "We don't want to publicise too much
about bird flu because of the effect on our farms. Prices have dropped
Driven by a combination of factors -- including national pride, a desire
to protect local industry and an over-confidence in their own capacity
to contain the virus -- a number of countries have been reluctant to
seek outside assistance in responding to the growing crisis.
Prime Minister John Howard has rightly called for calm and has cautioned
The head of the Australian Veterinary Association has warned that if
Australia bans all live bird imports, as is being considered, this could
rejuvenate the black market trade and increase the threat.
Smuggled and potentially contaminated birds would escape detection and
Australia's rigorous and effective quarantine checks.
Australia's regional assistance package, totalling more than $30
million, provides much-needed equipment, vaccinations and training, of
which $15 million goes to Indonesia.
We should keep building on these programs, in particular enhancing
Indonesia's capacity to detect bird smuggling into Australia.
The Australian Aid Agency and Australian Customs already have in place a
program assisting Indonesia's Customs Directorate to develop its
surveillance, intelligence and ship-searching capability.
With the bird flu threat, this program takes on added importance.
Significantly, there are no confirmed cases of the disease being
transmitted between humans, only between animals and humans.
But the World Health Organisation has said that as the number of
infected people increase, there is a greater likelihood of a new
influenza subtype being developed, which could be transmitted between
This would be the beginning of a pandemic that could claim many lives
and from which no country would be immune.
An effective response to a pandemic, should it eventuate, is dependent
lia's ability to meet three key challenges.
First, we must strengthen the capacity of other countries in our region
to handle the outbreak of bird flu.
In other words, their security is our security.
A high-level Australian delegation to Indonesia found the virus was
"endemic in poultry in 22 of Indonesia's 33 provinces".
The delegation reported on Indonesia's limited laboratories for
detection and diagnosis, their insufficient funds for surveillance at
the provincial level and the fact that the Infectious Diseases Hospital
in Jakarta has only six isolation rooms available for treatment.
This under-capacity is repeated across the region.
Second, Australia must encourage all countries affected by the virus to
be completely transparent and open about reporting the extent of
As the world's largest poultry producer, China has been very effective
in slaughtering millions of birds to contain the virus, but it has been
criticised for not making available samples of the virus taken from
migratory birds this year.
The WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, Shigeru Omi, has
called for it be more forthcoming, saying: "Without those samples, we
cannot know if the virus is mutating and if it is any closer to tipping
the world into the unknown."
Clearly a lack of information makes it difficult to get a true sense of
the proportions of the problem.
It engenders a false sense of security and prevents effective and timely
Third, we must do all to strengthen our domestic capacity for containing
the virus should it reach Australia.
As Health Minister Tony Abbott has pointed out, Australia knows what
it's like to lose large numbers of people in a pandemic.
The Spanish flu, which killed about 40 million people early last
century, took about 12,000 Australian lives, 60 per
cent of whom were aged between 20 and 45.
This year, Mr Abbott referred to a Commonwealth Government report that
in the event of a significant flu pandemic, 2.6 million Australians
might require medical attention, 58,000 hospital treatment, and it could
lead to 13,000 deaths.
Better hospitals, new technologies like thermal imaging cameras at our
borders and stockpiles of vaccinations like Tamiflu are critical.
By these standards we are well prepared, much more so than many other
ONLY days ago, an internal European Commission document revealed that
the European Commissioner for Health and Protection, Markos Kyprianou,
believed there was a serious shortage of vaccine stocks in member
In the US, President George Bush has been criticised for being
ill-prepared should the virus strike.
But with the Senate approving $3.9 billion in emergency funds and the
President considering using the military to enforce quarantine measures,
he has been making up ground.
No country can counter the threat alone but by working together and
combining our resources, we can limit the damage that would otherwise be
It is in our national interest to do so.
Josh Frydenberg is a former senior adviser to John Howard
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