DANANG, Vietnam -- Only half of the human bird flu cases detected by countries are being reported to the World Health Organization within two weeks -- a response time that must be improved to head off a potential flu pandemic, a senior WHO official said Saturday.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, the WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, said it's estimated that two to three weeks is all countries would have to stamp out or at least slow a pandemic flu strain after it began spreading. He said the first move would be to identify cluster cases and report them to WHO. International teams would then be deployed to investigate the site, the area would be quarantined and antiviral treatment would be given.
"All the steps have to be done within two to three weeks. As of now ... even reporting the first step, it takes sometimes more than two weeks for half of the cases," Omi said at the end of an Asia-Pacific meeting on bird flu in central Vietnam. "There's a lot of challenges."
Omi said political commitment is now strong at national levels across the region, but weaknesses still exist in getting the message all the way down to villages. He said the level of public awareness must increase so that ordinary people will understand what to do if they see a number of people or poultry coming down sick at once.
Omi attended a meeting with agriculture and health ministers representing the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. On Friday, they endorsed a plan aimed at stamping out bird flu and preparing for a potential flu pandemic.
Meanwhile, other delegates donned masks, goggles and biohazard suits Saturday morning as they toured a chicken farm in central Vietnam for a firsthand look at how hygiene is maintained.
"These countries have been dealing with avian influenza for several years and have clearly advanced thinking on it, so that's why I wanted to be here this morning to look at the activities that were successful here in Vietnam," said John Lange, the U.S. special representative for avian influenza. "They've been dealing with it and we're just expecting it."
Experts fear the H5N1 bird flu virus, which began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003, could mutate and potentially spark a global pandemic. The virus has killed at least 114 people worldwide, but most human cases have been linked to contact with infected birds.
The farm in Hoa Quy village in the coastal town of Danang had about 7,000 chickens, all of which had been vaccinated. Laying hens were kept in cages in an enclosed coop sprayed with disinfectant.
Much of the poultry in Vietnam and throughout Asia, however, is produced on a much smaller scale, with many households raising a handful of chickens in backyards. Such farming practices are much harder to control and make it easier for the H5N1 virus to spread.
A regional action plan adopted Friday calls for the restructuring of some backyard farming practices into larger, more controlled operations.
Officials said Australia will coordinate a regional practice exercise on June 7-8, with help from Singapore, to see how well countries respond and cooperate during a mock pandemic scenario.