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S. Africa rushes to prepare for possible bird flu attack
www.chinaview.cn 2005-10-18 01:50:53

    JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 17 (Xinhuanet) -- Fearing a killer avian flu may strike, South Africa's health authorities now rush to have an anti-flu medicine registered as a method of preparation.

    But critics say the government's action come already "too late"since the supply of the drug has been severely delayed due to huge demands from all over the world.

    The country's Medicines Control Council (MCC) has made an urgent request to the Health Ministry to allow for the quick registration of Tamiflu, a drug that can treat the virus, the ministry's spokesperson Solly Mabotha said on Monday.

    "This means that the MCC are requesting an approval to give thedrug priority over other medicines awaiting evaluation. Response to this effect is expected in due course," he was quoted as saying by the government news service, BuaNews.

    Tamiflu, manufactured by Swiss pharmaceutical group Roche, can reportedly block the growth of the bird flu virus within the body and reduce the severity and length of the illness.

    "In the absence of a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus,countries around the world have been discussing a variety of options including the stockpiling of Tamiflu drug," Mabotha said.

    But Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa's leading opposition party, claimed that the authorities should have done this two years ago.

    "In 2003, the MCC refused to register Tamiflu, claiming that we had sufficient medicines for flu in this country. It is now tryingto make up for lost time by fast-tracking its approval. But we have no idea how long this process will take," said Dianne Kohler-Barnard, DA's spokeswoman on health.

    Kohler-Barnard said many countries have placed orders for supplies of Tamiflu as a result of growing fears about a bird flu epidemic. But Roche is unable to supply enough for even current requests.

    The United States has been told that it must wait two years before it can expect to obtain supplies ordered recently, according to Kohler-Barnard.

    "How does it now intend to obtain supplies of the drug, when there is already a two-year backlog in filling orders?" she said.

    Health service sector and media in South Africa have also accused the government of lacking detailed plans for an possible outbreak of bird flu, known as H5N1, which has claimed dozens of lives in Asia and sounded alarms around the world, particularly in Europe recently.

    The country would be critically short of drugs and hospital beds if the virus hits, Andrew Jamieson, director of Netcare Travel Clinics, told the latest edition of Financial Mail, a local business weekly.

    The magazine also doubted if South Africa's public health system heavily strained by HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis can afford to stockpile expensive drugs for a disease that may never occur, an acute challenge faced by many other African countries.

    Mabotha argued that the Health Ministry is working closely withthe World Health Organization (WHO) and other countries in exploring measures to deal with the looming disease.

    "The department is monitoring every development around the world and together with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases we are constantly reviewing the country's flu epidemic prevention and management plan," he said.

    The WHO says that there is evidence the H5N1 strain of the birdflu virus, which has been circulating in birds, has a unique capacity to mutate and jump species barrier causing a disease withhigh mortality in humans.

    To date no cases of bird flu caused by the H5N1 strain have been reported in South Africa, Mabotha said.

    The recent strain, H5N2, was last detected in August 2004 at ostrich farms in the Eastern Cape province and has since been successfully contained, he said.

    Mabotha said despite the fact there was no immediate danger to South Africa, health authorities had intensified detection control measures to prevent any possible human exposure.

    "This includes strengthening screening services at the country's major points of entry for people and freight from high-risk areas that has been affected by bird flu, particularly Asia," he said. Enditem

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