The country worst hit by bird flu, Vietnam, confirmed its 42nd human death today from the virus, as the World Health Organisation warned governments to be ready for when – not if – a deadly pandemic arrives that could kill millions.
In China, the Swiss maker of Tamiflu said it had stopped selling the antiviral drug in the country and was turning over supplies to the Ministry of Health as officials were ordered to prepare to treat possible human cases of bird flu.
Tamiflu is one of the few drugs believed to be effective against bird flu. In the event of a possible human flu pandemic, “the government is in the best position to handle rapid response and distribution,” the Chinese arm of Roche Holding AG said in a written statement.
China hasn’t reported any infections in humans with the virulent H5N1 strain of the virus, which has killed at least 63 people elsewhere in Asia.
However, Beijing reopened an investigation Sunday into whether bird flu killed a 12-year-old girl and sickened two people last month in cases originally ruled not to be from H5N1.
Health officials say a case is inevitable if China can’t stop repeated outbreaks in poultry.
Health Minister Gao Qiang ordered local officials to step up efforts to prevent human infections and preparations to treat possible cases, the official Xinhua News Agency said. A day earlier, authorities closed live poultry markets in Beijing and were going house-to-house in the Chinese capital Beijing seizing chickens and ducks raised in private homes.
In Geneva, experts at the first major international co-ordination meeting on bird flu and pandemic human flu urged countries to draw up plans for an inevitable human pandemic.
Experts agree a global flu outbreak capable of killing millions of people is a certainty. What is also certain, scientists say, is that the virus will come from bird flu, though not necessarily the current strain, H5N1.
WHO has been urging countries to draw up pandemic flu plans for almost a decade, but it was not until the bird flu outbreak in Asia became a clear threat that many sprang into action. In recent months, bird flu has made its way to parts of Europe.
Six months ago, fewer than 40 countries had a pandemic flu plan, said Dr. Mike Ryan, director of epidemic and pandemic alert and response at WHO. Now, 120 countries, or 60 percent of the WHO member states, have a plan.
The plans include improving early detection of disease, increasing the ability of hospitals to cope with sudden heavy traffic, and the stockpiling of drugs and vaccines.
The fear of bird flu mutating into a form easily transmitted between people is greatest in Asia, where most of the deaths have been linked to direct contact with infected birds.
Vietnam today confirmed its 42nd human death from bird flu, its first in more than three months, a Health Ministry official said.
The 35-year-old man, who died on October 29, was admitted to a Hanoi hospital four days after his family bought a prepared chicken from a market near his house, said Nguyen Van Binh, deputy director of the Preventive Medicine Department. Other family members did not show any symptoms of bird flu, he said.
As part of its pandemic preparedness plan, Vietnam will launch large-scale drills in the country’s three main regions to test the country’s readiness sometime in the second half of November, said Health Ministry spokesman Pham Tuan Hung.
Drills, which include treating patients, disinfecting the environment and operating mobile units, will be held in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and a major city in central Vietnam.
Vietnam has ordered 25 million Tamiflu tablets – enough for 2.5 million people, today’s Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported.
Cao Minh Quang, director of the pharmaceutical administration department under the Ministry of Health, was quoted as saying talks with the company on a possible license for Vietnam to produce a generic version of the drug were still inconclusive.