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07 April 2005

U.S. Aid Agency Joins Southeast Asian Bird Flu Campaign

Agency outlines plans to help in disease surveillance and case detection

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is offering support to five Southeast Asian nations to contain and control the spread of bird flu in order to prevent the spread of a virus that has the potential to cause a global flu pandemic.

USAID will be targeting its assistance to Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, agency officials said in a briefing April 7.  The highly infectious H5N1 virus has caused the deaths of millions of birds in these five nations and four others in the region.  Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are the only nations where human cases of this deadly form of influenza have been confirmed, but USAID officials describe the other countries to receive its targeted assistance as “vulnerable.”

The World Health Organization reports 79 confirmed human cases of flu caused by H5N1, and 49 deaths, a high mortality rate that has health officials very concerned.  The vast majority of these cases can be attributed to direct contact with birds, but disease experts worry that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted from person to person.  At that point, the possibility of a global epidemic looms large. 

Dennis Carroll, USAID’s senior infectious disease adviser, said the agency will have several key objectives as it works with regional governments and international organizations in this campaign against disease. Watching out for where outbreaks arise and detecting cases as rapidly as possible will be very important in preventing broader spread of the disease.

“We’re suspicious that there may be cases going on there that have been missed,” said Murray Trostle, director of USAID’s infectious disease surveillance group. “This is a good reason for us to strengthen the surveillance system there.”

Carroll said the objective will be to get local health officials more actively involved in the pursuit of avian influenza cases.  “We will be specifically talking about training staffs of active case detection teams, providing logistic support, ensuring quality control for sample collections from both animal and human populations.”

USAID will also work to create greater awareness and understanding about the disease, Carroll said, a process that will unfold on several levels.  Local officials need a better understanding of the importance of transparency and responsiveness in handling reports of disease.  Health workers need better technical education on spotting cases and minimizing their own risks.

Another component of the educational campaign will be to convince the public to be wary of contacts with poultry, and USAID officials acknowledge this could be challenging in a region where it is common for families to keep chickens around the house. Trostle said the agency is experienced in health education, having mounted successful campaigns focused on maternal health, HIV/AIDS and other issues in other regions.

“We have developed communications that actually get down to families and individuals in practicing healthy behaviors, and participating more in the health system,” he said.  “This is playing to an advantage that USAID has.”

USAID will be investing $1.2 million in the expanded bird flu campaign in Southeast Asia, Carroll said. A proposal is pending in the Congress that could devote more money to the health effort. 

In an April 5 statement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has contributed $5.5 million to the regional and international effort to improve flu pandemic preparedness.