Australian minister: Bird flu human pandemic would almost end int'l travel

Australia hosting APEC forum to coordinate international response in case of human pandemic.

International air travel would virtually stop if bird flu triggered a lethal human pandemic in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia's health minister said Sunday, as Chinese media reported plummeting poultry sales in Beijing and Shanghai. Bird-flu prevention teams were fanning out across China's capital to ensure no wild birds were being sold at the city's markets, the Beijing News newspaper reported Sunday, after 182 wild birds were found at one market on sale against regulations. Beijing has banned the sale of wild birds, since it cannot guarantee they haven't come from bird-flu infected areas. Vietnam reported Saturday that two people had died after displaying flu-like symptoms in the central Quang Binh province in the past week but no diagnosis could be made because blood samples were not taken before they were buried. Australia's Health Minister Tony Abbott did not directly respond to questions on whether Australia would expel foreigners, close its ports or accept "flu refugees" in the event of a pandemic breaking out in neighboring Indonesia. "If there is a pandemic, international travel will almost cease I suspect for a significant period of time," Abbott told Ten Network television. "Regardless of what border controls countries might put on, there will be very few people who'll be wanting to travel." He said the government would help Australians wanting to return home if there was a global pandemic. Australia will host an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum of health and disaster officials in the east coast city of Brisbane Monday to coordinate the international response to a human pandemic that could result from the virulent H5N1 strain of the bird flu mutating into a form easily transmitted between humans. H5N1 has already killed at least 62 people after jumping from sick birds as well as millions of poultry is Asia since 2003. The two-day meeting is expected to be the largest ever gathering of the 21 APEC members' chief pandemic disaster managers. As the United States contributes to the APEC debate on global cooperation, US President George W. Bush will visit the US National Institutes of Health on Tuesday to announce his administration's strategy on how to prepare for the next flu pandemic, whether it's caused by the bird flu in Asia or some other super strain of influenza. As an island continent, Australia has a natural sea barrier to many Southeast Asian diseases and is protecting itself by investing in neighbors' efforts to contain the virus. Abbott said Australia had already spent 170 million Australian dollars (US$127 million; €106 million) on safeguarding its population of 20 million. Australia's bird flu strategy has come under criticism from some experts who say Canberra plans to waste most of its stockpile of 4 million courses of anti-viral drugs by using it as preventative medication for essential workers instead of saving it for those who contract the disease. Abbott justified the strategy, saying the anti-virals Tamiflu and Relenza "will provide effective prevention but we are by no means certain that they will be a cure if you're already symptomatic." Meanwhile, the China Daily reported Saturday that although there is no evidence that humans can catch the virus through properly cooked poultry, sales at Shanghai's biggest poultry market have plunged by 80 percent. China has yet to record a single human fatality but has experienced three outbreaks among poultry flocks. In Vietnam, a 14-year-old girl died on Oct. 23 and a 26-year-old man died in the same province on Thursday, said Nguyen Duc Hanh, a doctor at the hospital where they were treated. Hanh said both had typical bird flu symptoms, including high fever, breathing difficulties and a rapid lung infection. Vietnam has been hardest hit with more than 40 human deaths from H5N1 since 2003. In Indonesia where four people have died from the virus this year, university officials said hundreds of students are ready to begin house-to-house checks of backyard chickens for bird flu as part of a "military-like" door-to-door campaign launched by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.