Cabinet adds NIS 180m. for avian flu readiness

Money to buy enough antiviral drug Tamiflu to treat 25% of population in event of avian flu pandemic.

The cabinet decided on Sunday that the government will allocate an additional NIS 150 million to purchase the antiviral drug Tamiflu for treatment of up to 25 percent of the population in the event of an avian flu pandemic, if it spreads to humans. The government, approving the Health Ministry's request, also agreed to allocate NIS 30 million for an information campaign and hospital equipment in the event of the spread of avian flu here. However, it was not yet determined who will pay. The Health, Agriculture, Defense and Finance ministries will send representatives on Sunday to a meeting to decide from where the budget will be taken. The supply of Tamiflu, the Roche Pharmaceuticals drug that relieves complications if swallowed within two days of infection, is low around the world, and the company has said it could take a year to catch up with demand. The drug also can cause significant side effects, but so far it is the only drug available to fight avian flu. The virus, which originates in Southeast Asia's poultry and pig population and has reached humans who work with the animals, does not yet pass from human to human. Only if the virus mutates enough to the same strain that felled tens of millions with the Spanish flu in 1918 would it endanger large parts of the world's population. In any case, publicity about the avian flu has already produced a welcome side effect: It has induced many high-risk people to get vaccinated against ordinary flu - so many that some health funds are rationing it to those over 50 until they get additional supplies in the next few days. Meanwhile, the head of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun, well-known zoologist Dr. Yossi Leshem, will on Tuesday take Health Ministry director-general Prof. Avi Yisraeli on a tour of bird-monitoring and -banding facilities. The aim is not to make Yisraeli a bird lover, but to persuade him to find NIS 2 million a year to taking samples from birds to see if they have avian flu or other diseases. Leshem, also a senior zoology researcher at Tel Aviv University, called recent local media reports and foreign health authorities' announcements about deadly pandemics "exaggerated." But he said that nevertheless, money should be spent here on systematically taking biological samples from some of the hundreds of millions of migrating birds that pass through and fly over Israel during the autumn and spring. Workers and volunteers at his center in Latrun, the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO) near the Knesset and other facilities already catch birds, attach bands to their legs testifying to their having been to Israel and release them. Leshem, who on Friday headed a tour of the JBO and the Latrun facility for journalists organized by Info-Mishkenot, the Israel Newsmakers Forum, said he knew the ministry wanted data."„We have done some testing, but we won't give the information for nothing. The ministry will have to pay for it. We want the government to take financial responsibility. "If it has allocated so much money for Tamiflu," Leshem added, "it can pay for the data, which takes just 12 hours to process." He added that the money would be used to complete a national system of migratory bird monitoring around the country. "We are ready to implement a monitoring system of infectious diseases in birds. Every few years there is a new panic about birds, and the authorities remember that samples need to be taken. Two years ago, we suggested to the ministry that our facilities be used to test migratory birds for West Nile virus, which is also carried by birds, but the ministry did not agree to fund it." A Health Ministry spokesman said that it monitors only human diseases and not bird diseases, thus financing a system for monitoring avian flu in migratory birds is the responsibility of the Agriculture Ministry. The data can then be supplied to other countries, which is important, as migratory birds know no boundaries, said Leshem, who dreams of promoting a coordinated network of bird banding and data exchange in some of the 23 countries along the Great Syrian-African Rift, through which so many migratory birds pass twice a year. Leshem said that there is no reason for birdwatchers to worry about being at sites, such as the Huleh Valley, where large numbers of migratory species are feeding and then flying south. Avian flu is spread only by direct respiratory contact. A feature article on the Latrun center, the JBO and Dr. Leshem's educational, scientific and international efforts will be published on The Jerusalem Post's Science & Health Page of November 6.