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Experts: Asia needs to remain vigilant

ASIA must remain vigilant over the threat of swine flu, step up cooperation to produce vaccines and bolster meager anti-viral stockpiles, top regional health officials said yesterday.

The virus has so far largely spared Asia. Only South Korea and China have confirmed cases.

But with the memories of outbreaks of bird flu and SARS that claimed hundreds of lives still fresh in their minds, delegates to a regional conference said it was no time to let down their guard.

Health ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations along with China, South Korea and Japan met in Bangkok to discuss precautions such as producing and storing vaccines and anti-viral drugs, expanding the ASEAN emergency stockpile of 1 million courses of Tamiflu and Relenza, improving surveillance and holding drills to test responses to an outbreak.

"We are trying to harmonize the strategies among our members so there are no loopholes in the region," said Dhannanjaya Sunoto, an ASEAN official helping countries prepare for an outbreak. "This is very important for us."

Dhannanjaya said it was too early to discount the impact of the flu, saying the 1918-19 flu pandemic should serve as a cautionary tale.

It also began in the spring and was initially mild, but a much more lethal strain of flu hit six months later, and the virus eventually killed 50 million worldwide.

"That is reason for all of us to be on high alert and make sure a system is in place to prevent or mitigate the severity of the pandemic if it comes to the region," he said.

The World Health Organization's Keiji Fukuda, speaking to delegates by video link, said it was best to be prepared because the virus, while mild, still has the "potential to infect a third or more of world population in the next several months."

"If we are well prepared and the overall events turn out to be relatively mild and few people die, then it would be something we are happy to see," Fukuda said. "On the other hand, if we do see some degree of complacency and the disease becomes severe and we lose that time, it is a course of action that none of us can accept."

Swine flu has hit hardest in Mexico - which has reported at least 1,160 cases - the US and Europe. There have been 46 deaths, 44 in Mexico and two in the US.

South Korea yesterday confirmed a third case of swine flu in a 62-year-old woman but said she had already recovered and been released from a military-run hospital.

The woman had been staying in the US state of Arizona and was on the same flight back to South Korea as the country's first confirmed patient, a Catholic nun who had traveled to Mexico. The nun recovered earlier this week.


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