Info Service on Health Issues (February 07/04)
raise fears over sharing bird flu virus samples
countries fear that sharing information about local samples of bird
flu virus benefit the developed countries more from the vaccines produced.
article below describes their concern that the benefits are not equally
shared despite supplying the virus samples and is reproduced with the
permission of South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6188, 12 February
Health: WHO feathers ruffled
over bird flu vaccine
By Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS, Bangkok, 8 February 2007
A decision by the Indonesian
government to be selective about sending local samples of the bird flu
virus to the World Health Organisation (WHO) reflects fears harboured
by developing countries of being marginalised in the race to find a
vaccine for this deadly disease.
Jakarta's plan was confirmed this week, prompting the WHO to express
Indonesia wants to work in tandem with the US-based Baxter Healthcare
to develop a vaccine to inoculate its nationals from bird flu and secure
additional benefits that would emerge from such treatment.
This route towards a vaccine is expected to rattle the prevailing global
system to identify strains of flu for developing new vaccines. It was
a system designed by the Geneva-based health agency with the backing
of its 193 members and had been sustained through a spirit of cooperation.
''Indonesia has tossed the latest salvo into a debate that has been
simmering under the surface for a long time,'' says Basil Rodriques,
regional immunisation officer for the East Asia and Pacific division
of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). ''It is an issue of
relevance that the world needs to come to grips with.''
Indonesia's decision forces public health officials to ask ''what is
best for the public good,'' he explained to IPS. ''Right now the world
does not have the capacity to produce seasonal flu vaccines for everyone.''
Indonesia's move is winning some sympathy among public health officials
in Thailand who say that the WHO-established system - expecting countries
to share information about virus samples isolated from among their nationals
- is positive if the benefits are evenly shared.
But the reality is otherwise, they add, because developed countries
gain more from the vaccines produced from virus samples collected from
the developing world.
''Indonesia has a point in expressing concern to take care of the health
of its people first. Any country will respond to its domestic needs
first before looking at problems that concern other countries,'' a senior
Thai public health official in the country's department of disease control,
told IPS on condition of anonymity.
''The WHO should address this new challenge from a global security point
Signs of such thinking among developing countries have emerged in the
past months, most noticeably at a WHO meeting in January. On that occasion,
representatives of developing nations expressed concern that their people
are seeing only limited benefits from the current arrangement to develop
vaccines, despite supplying the virus samples.
Late last year, Chinese authorities limited the amount of bird flu virus
samples they were prepared to share with the WHO, leading to a clash
between Beijing and the health body at a time when there was concern
about a possible new "Fujian-like" strain, spreading through
parts of southern China.
Indonesia's decision takes on added weight because the country is the
epicentre of the H5N1 virus, with a death toll of 63 people out of 83
who were infected.
Other South-east Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia
have had human fatalities too, placing the region on the front-line
in ongoing efforts to curb an infection that threatens to mutate into
one that could trigger a global flu pandemic, potentially killing millions.
So far, 160 people have died out of the total 270 cases of infection
stemming from contact with poultry infected by the H5N1 strain of the
virus. Human cases have been recorded in 11 countries out of the more
than 50 nations across Asia, Africa and Europe where the virus has been
The latest outbreak of bird flu, which began in the winter of 2003 in
South-east Asia and has kept reappearing in an unpredictable manner,
also triggered concern by developing countries in 2005 when there was
a race to purchase limited stocks of Tamiflu. This drug was identified
at the time as being the only one potent enough to respond to the spread
of avian influenza.
Developed countries like the United States, Britain, France and Norway
placed large orders of the drug from its producer, the Swiss pharmaceutical
giant Roche, despite being free of any bird flu cases. South-east Asian
countries that were more in need of the drug were forced to the back
of the purchasing line.
''The US and Western countries are gobbling up the drug and denying
access to developing countries that need it most,'' Philippines' health
secretary, Francois Duque, said in protest at the time. ''The poor countries
once again have been excluded from the arena.''
Indonesia's decision this week comes at a time when there is rising
concern about a possible spike in bird flu cases following one of the
worst floods that the country's capital, Jakarta, has experienced. The
poorer neighbourhoods of this sprawling city, which were inundated by
rising waters over the weekend, have also been under the watch of animal
health officials for possible bird flu outbreaks.
The floods, which followed heavy rains, submerged close to 80% of Jakarta's
44 districts, with some places going under three metres of water. The
floods killed more than 30 people and forced 340,000 from their homes.
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