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Take H5N1 seriously, but no need for panic
(HK Edition)
Updated: 2005-11-14 05:48

There is no reason to panic in view of the availability of Tamiflu which is widely considered the most effective drug in fighting bird influenza in human. The WHO has advised all nations to maintain Tamiflu for the needs of 25 per cent of their populations.

Subsequently, Swiss Tamiflu maker Roche Holding AG has been very busy producing the amounts required for mankind. Roche claimed its rivals would take years to copy the drug. Given this presumption, it will take a decade for Roche alone to produce sufficient Tamiflu pills for all nations.

As a patented drug, fortunately, it should not be too difficult to replicate provided that proper consent or authorization is given by the patent holder. Regardless of Roche's warning of a potentially explosive process involved, Taiwan's scientists have successfully reproduced Tamiflu after 18 days in the laboratory. Another Indian drug maker, Cipla Ltd, said it would begin making the drug. In China, drug makers indicated that if the epidemic spreads, they will produce their own version of Tamiflu. Under the Patent Law of the PRC, it is permissible in case of a public health crisis and emergency.

In contrast to what was asserted by Roche, scientists agree it is easy to produce Tamiflu once its active ingredient shikimic acid can be reproduced first. It is derived from star anise, a spice widely grown and used in China, Japan and most Asian nations.

Understanding the situation, Roche has begun talks about licensing Tamiflu to more than 100 parties who are interested in making the drug. Without a proven vaccine for humans to be immune from the disease, governments around the world have pinned their hopes on this antiviral drug against any possible outbreak.

But prediction and prevention are always better than cure. The HKSAR government is enforcing its Influenza Vaccination Programme, providing free vaccinations to all people at risk who may develop complications or have chronic illness, and those who may be unable to afford the cost of the private medical sector. It is said that 250,000 people will benefit from the programme.

In 1997, the HKSAR prevented H5N1 from spreading by immediately and decisively killing millions of poultry. Similar preventive measures shall also be taken to avoid human contact with infected poultry and livestock, and poultry markets should be closed if infected poultry is discovered.

Epidemics are global in nature, and demand a concerted regional and/or international cooperation and positive response. The HKSAR should maintain close ties with the mainland and other areas in this respect and the public has the right to be well informed about the virus. Needless to say the government should prepare its own emergency programme to thwart any possible outbreak.

As migrating birds are believed to have carried the deadly H5N1 strain of virus, the Mai Po wetland should be subjected to close surveillance during this winter and next spring when 50,000 wild birds stop over and breed there either way.

After the painful experience of SARS in 2003, the Hong Kong public has learned that the existing design of the sewage system in a highrise building can affect the health of its residents, and the same applies to the ventilation systems of various hospitals. The HKSAR government should make sure that all deficiencies have been followed up and made good before a pandemic begins.

The epidemic situation in Asia is serious, but the prospect is bright. Since a known pandemic killed large numbers in 1918, medical science and technology have been advancing by leaps and bounds, and governments all over the world have seen much improvement and people of different nations have become more cooperative.

With joint efforts of all governments, medical professionals and people of all nations, mankind will certainly win the battle against this tiny H5N1 virus. If HKSAR could handle bird flu properly in 1997, we have no reason to doubt that it will be able to do the same now.

(HK Edition 11/14/2005 page5)

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