Bird Flu Alarm

2005-10-20-Latin America Takes Bird Flu Measures

Understanding Avian Influenza

2005-10-20-Latin America Takes Bird Flu Measures

SAO PAULO, Brazil Oct 20, 2005 ? Scrambling to guard Latin America from a possible pandemic, countries from Mexico to Brazil focused on measures Thursday to protect the region from bird flu.

The economic health of the region could also be at stake. Brazil, South America's largest economy and the world's largest exporter of chicken, said it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars just to contain an outbreak.

And in Peru, officials were gearing up for a high-level meeting Friday for health officials from six Andean nations in Lima to coordinate a regional contingency plan to prevent the spread of bird flu.

Mexico on Thursday set aside $55 million that will be partly used to invest in technology that would enable Mexico to develop a vaccine against bird flu.

The money also will be used to obtain a stockpile of existing anti-viral drugs and antibiotics, buy protective material for health personnel and fund nationwide monitoring for early detection of cases of a potential human strain of the bird flu.

"This shouldn't be cause for panic," Mexican Health Secretary Julio Frenk said. "There isn't a worldwide pandemic right now. We are simply preparing for an event that experts say could occur at some point, but which hasn't occurred."

Officials and experts agree that Latin America is possibly the last place in the world migratory birds might spread the flu. That's because birds flying south from United States are not believed to have intermingled with birds heading to America from the Russian region of Siberia, where one of the latest outbreaks occurred.

But Latin American officials said they can't afford to take any chances. And bird experts said there is reason for concern although an outbreak caused by migratory birds probably would not happen until next fall because of great distances involved for the migratory birds in affected areas.

"There are populations of shorebirds that mingle with birds in Europe and migrate to the United States and then south down the coast of South America," said Michael Fry, a spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy.

Ahead of the meeting in Lima, Peruvian Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti told Radio 1160 that she and counterparts from Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela will discuss unified border controls and a joint response for an outbreak.

In Brazil, local media reported that the government has already set aside more than $440 million needed to contain and treat the disease. Health Ministry spokeswoman Marionita Queiroz said this amount will not be allocated unless an outbreak actually happens.

Poultry production in Latin America's largest country rose 8 percent last year, with exports skyrocketing 26 percent in part because of the outbreak of bird flu in Asia. Brazil on Wednesday set up checkpoints at ports and airports to examine birds shipped into the country.

The only case of bird flu identified so far in Latin America was in western Colombia last week, but Colombia's national poultry association said the virus was a mild strain of avian influenza not related to the sickness that has killed dozens of people in Asia.

That strain, H5N1, has decimated Asian flocks and recently spread into Romania and Turkey.

Contributing to this story: Associated Press writers Rick Vecchio in Lima, Paulo Winterstein in Sao Paulo and Lisa J. Adams in Mexico City.

Understanding Avian Influenza