Monday, September 26, 2005


By Darryl Mason

Last week as President Bush toured hurricane disaster zones in Texas and Louisiana, he spoke of the need for the US military to “take control” in the event of another national disaster, which would include a bird flu pandemic.

Bush visited Northern Command, the military bunker where the movement of more than half a million active and National Guard soldiers can be controlled and coordinated in the event of a massive national disaster.

Bush also visited the Randolph Air Force Base where, in a pre-arranged discussion before the US media, a Major General John White talked up the idea of creating a national response plan for mass disaster, with the military in key roles.

Bush said he liked the idea, and cited the disorganisation that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as a reason why such a plan may have great value.

Although Bush said it would be up to Congress to consider the circumstances where Northern Command and the Department of Defence would become the lead agencies for disaster response, it was clear he had already decided the military would be deployed should another massive hurricane threaten the country.

“ there a natural disaster of a certain size that would then enable the Defence Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?” Bush asked, rhetorically.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the president intended to establish “a very clear line of authority” should the US be hit with another major catastrophe.

McClellan cited “an outbreak” of bird flu as being one kind of catastrophe that should see a military response and co-ordination role.

"You need to mobilise assets and resources and logistics and communications very quickly to help stabilise or contain the situation," McClellan said. "The organisation, in the president's mind, that has the capability to do that is the Department of Defence."

McClellan was clear in citing “an epidemic” of bird flu being the kind of situation that Bush would see as being worthy of a military response, which would essentially place the Pentagon in control of the entire country, via Northern Command.

Last week, Indonesian authorities called the spread of bird flu and the deaths of at least five people “an epidemic”.

At least three stops on the Bush disaster zone tour were to purposely place the president in the locations where he would be seen should a massive catastrophe strike the US again and the military was needed.

One specific location was the Northern Command bunker, strengthened to withstand a direct nuclear strike, earthquakes and hurricanes. There are at least 60 such bunkers scattered across the US, inside mountains, under airports, and both below and close to the White House.

Bush spent his vacation reading a book about the flu pandemic of 1918 that saw upwards of 50 million people dying around the world, or 20% of the world’s population.

Within days of returning from his vacation Bush was talking about the global threat of bird flu and how the US needed to take the lead in both fighting and controlling a deadly pandemic.

Bush remained fixated on the threat of bird flu through his six stop tour of hurricane ravaged states and discussed pandemic scenarios with Northern Command staff during hurricane rescue and recovery briefings.

If Congress does not object to Bush’s plan to invoke military rule of the US during a national disaster, then the president would be free to take command of all states and counties, bypassing local officials, following the first human bird flu deaths in North America.



Chemists across Australia are running out of anti-virals stocks and hundreds of customers are now on months long waiting lists.

The much publicised anti-viral Tamiflu has proven to be most popular, despite courses of the drug costing up to $50 each.

The federal government has spent more than $100 million of taxpayers money stockpiling some 4 million courses of anti-virals, and have compiled a priority list in the event of an outbreak.

Naturally, senior government ministers are at the top of the list, though no minister has confirmed whether family members will also be given anti-virals. Emergency health workers will be dosed up, as will funeral industry workers and select members of the Armed Forces.

Health Minister Tony Abbott said the government stockpile would protect a million workers in “essential services” for six or so weeks.

The UK government has a priority list that includes senior government ministers and a curious assortment of corporate heads and chief executives, along with a selection of media personalities who will be expected to help contain the panic if a pandemic breaks out.

Tamiflu is made by Roche, they have now doubled production of the anti-viral in Australia but warned recently it could take up to a year to make the drugs.

Roche is now the target of growing campaign aimed at forcing the corporation to give up its patent on Tamiflu so a generic version can be mass produced all over the world.

But some virologists have warned that as a human-to-human strain of bird flu has not yet shown itself there was no guarantee the anti-virals would work on everybody who took them. There was also the possibility of the virus mutating further once it was active in humans and growing beyond the control of anti-virals like Tamiflu.

In the end the Australian government may have spent $100 million amassing the world’s largest stockpile of a drug that doesn’t work.

The problem is, virologists have claimed, we won’t know whether the anti-virals will work for most people until it is too late, until that is when a bird flu pandemic has begun.



The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday that hundreds of people gathered to watch the mass slaughter and burning of dozens of pigs in a Javanese village in July this year.

The Indonesian Agriculture Minister, Anton Apriantono, warned reporters that they should be wearing masks to protect themselves as they witnessed the pig cull.

“This is very dangerous,” the minister announced, “...the virus can be transmitted through the air.”

“Don’t blame me if you get bird flu because you don’t have a mask,” he said.

The slaughter of pigs and ducks in the Tangerang region, close to Jakarta, took place after Ivan Rapei and his two young daughters died with symptoms of heavy pneumonia. Mr Rapei was confirmed to have been infected with the bird flu virus.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported tests completed in April showed pig farms with infected with bird flu, but that no official culls were ordered.

17 of the 22 Indonesians quarantined over the weekend lived in Tangerang or in areas near Jakarta.

The World Health Organisation now claims that Indonesia’s refusals to conduct mass culls in bird flu infected areas made the country the bird flu “hot spot” in a global campaign to avert a pandemic.

WHO officials claimed Indonesia has known for months that the virus was “entrenched” in the poultry populations.”

WHO claims the start of a pandemic could begin when a person has both a normal flu virus and the avian influenza strain at the same time and a genetic exchange occurs between the two viruses.

The Sydney Morning Herald claimed that the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta was kept open for at least two days after half of the exotic bird collected showed positive test results for bird flu. Hundreds of expatriates visited the zoo unaware of the bird flu outbreak, taking part in a charity fun run.

More than a hundred zoo visitors were refused treatment for flu-like symptoms at Jakarta’s main infectious disease hospital last week. They were told to come back if the symptoms grew “more serious”.

Health minister Siti Fadilah Supari now says the possibility of human transmission of bird flu was inevitable, after earlier denying such infections were possible.

Criteria for a mass cull, where compensation from the Indonesian government would be due, has been set at an infection rate of 20% for all poultry in one farm. No mass culls have taken place, claims Indonesia, because no farms have shown such a rate of infection.

Arguments now rage in the Indonesian government on whether the country is suffering through an epidemic of bird flu. Many government ministers fear public announcements of an increased threat from bird flu would reduce tourist numbers and impact negatively on the economy.



The Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has expressed his alarm at Indonesia’s slow response in dealing with a human outbreak of the bird flu virus and has upped the donation of anti-virals to some 50,000 doses after originally scheduling only 10,0000 doses last Friday.

Only days after the World Health Organisation said there remained only a short time before a human pandemic of bird flu virus began, Downer appeared disturbed on Australian television news this evening as he said Indonesia was find the outbreak “difficult to handle”.

"I think they have been caught a bit short, to tell you the truth,” he said.

Downer claimed Indonesia was getting better organised, through the support of the WHO, but Indonesian officials are still refusing the basic WHO guidelines that call for mass bird culls in areas where deaths from the bird flu virus has occurred.

The outbreak of bird flu is expected to head agendas at the November Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, and the December East Asia Summit.


The AP news service reports tonight that only $20 million out of a proposed $100 million UN fund to fight the spread of bird flu has been pledged by the world’s richest countries.

The $100 million is being sought for the vaccination of poultry and to fund international analysis of bird flu virus samples from countries already infected, including Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Vietnam has seen the highest death toll in humans with 40 succumbing to the virus since human infections began in early 2003.

The Indonesian outbreak, labelled an epidemic last week, is the focus of the world fight against bird flu but officials are resisting international calls to spend the tens of millions of dollars needed for mass culls of poultry and the quarantining of bird flu infected villages.

Indonesian government officials have repeatedly stated the threat of bird flu is a problem for the whole world, not just Indonesia.


Reuters news service reported today that Iran is gearing up for an outbreak of bird flu, although the government has claimed it has not found any infected poultry.

"We will most probably get the bird flu carried by the millions of wild birds that are on their way to Iran," said Behrouz Yasemi, spokesman for Iran's veterinary authority.

During the winter, millions of ducks, waterfowl and wild geese migrate into northern Iran’s lakes and wetlands.

So far the Iranian government has warned poultry farmers to keep their stock isolated from wild birds and has collected and tested 1700 samples. Behrouz Yasemi told Rueters they are yet to find a single infection.

"We have not got it yet, but we plan to be prepared for it when it arrives in our northern provinces," he added.

Iran successfully dealt with a previous bird flu outbreak in poultry during 2003 by placing a ban on all bird products imported from East Asia.

Stopping wild migrating birds from mixing with poultry will prove much more difficult.

The Iranian government has formed a bird flu committee bringing together veterinary experts and members of the ministries of health, agriculture and the environment.

The committee recently announced a nationwide ban on hunting wild birds and banned the importation of bird products from both Kazakhstan and Russia, where outbreaks of bird flu has already killed millions of wild birds and poultry.

The governments of Russia and Kazakhstan have, in reply, banned all bird products imported from Iran.


The Jakarta Post said today few new measures have been taken to contain the spread of bird flu almost a week after government officials called the outbreak “an epidemic”.

Even in areas where the virus has killed humans no mass culls have begun, despite international calls and growing pressure from the World Health Organisation.

Poultry farmers are reluctant to do their own culls without compensation from the government and are complaining about a shortage of vaccine for poultry.

The bird flu virus is believed to have infected two thirds of country’s provinces, with high concentrations of poultry massed in towns through the provinces of Java and West Sulawesi.

Two weeks ago more than 1500 egg-laying pullets died in a matter of days in the town of Tulungagung, but no new supplies of vaccine have arrived for the surviving poultry population of two million.

Farmers are demanding free vaccine for their birds after a lack of compensation following mass poultry culls in the district during last year’s outbreak.

In Southeast Sulawesi more than eight million farm birds need to be vaccinated, but only 200,000 doses of vaccine have been distributed so far.

Indonesia has more than one billion poultry across its 33 provinces, and some 300 million free-range chickens. 60 percent of Indonesia’s entire poultry is concentrated in Java, the most densely populated area outside of Jakarta.

WHO guidelines demand a mass cull of all birds in a three kilometre radius of any bird flu infection in poultry.

Indonesia refuses to initiate the mass culls, claiming there is a lack of funds to compensate the farmers.


The Jakarta Post reported tonight that five of 21 one people quarantined over the weekend at the Sulianti Saroso Infectious Disease Hospital in Jakarta have been released following negative tests for bird flu infection.

Sixteen patients remain in the hospital suffering bird-flu like symptoms.

Basic tests from a five year old girl who died last week proved negative for bird flu, but a final confirmation wont be given until full results are confirmed by a laboratory in Hong Kong on Thursday.

Two weeks ago there were only four hospitals assigned to treat bird flu victims in Indonesia. This has now been dramatically ramped up to more than 40 hospitals, although there remains a lack of essential equipment such as respirators.

Indonesia is now waiting on a promised delivery of 10,000 doses of Tamiflu from the Australian stockpile of 3-4 million, the largest per capita in the world.




The death today of a 27 year old woman from bird flu has raised the Indonesian toll to a suspected six victims.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters that the 50,000 doses of anti-virals that Australia was ‘buying’ for Indonesia would “give the Indonesians the capacity to deal with the problem, at least in the short-term."

"I think they've been caught a bit short, to tell you the truth, and they're
finding it difficult to handle," he said.

The Australian site reported today that anti-viral medications were being distributed through Indonesia’s population, but supplies were greatly limited and the distribution was at a crawl.

Downer criticised Indonesia for its slow reaction to the bird flu outbreak and said he hoped the involvement of the WHO would speed up the distribution of anti-virals.

It has been announced that Australian Quarantine officers have seized more than five tonnes of poultry and bird products at Australian airports alone in the past twelve months.

Screenings of flights entering Australia from bird flu infected countries have turned up thousands of eggs, thousands of moon cakes, hundreds of kilos of egg noodles and more than 60 tonnes of feathers.

Despite such protective measures, there is nothing that can be done to stop migrating birds infected with bird flu entering the country.

"No country either can, or for that matter should, try to stop birds migrating,” said Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, “...birds do move between Australia and other parts of the the seasons change."


According to the Jakarta Post, Indonesian Hotel and Restaurants Association (PHRI) chairwoman Yanti Sukamdani Hardjoparkoso has raised the alarm about the potential impact of the bird flu outbreak on tourism, and in particular a feared downturn in visitors to Bali.

She cited the Ragunan Zoo, where at least a hundred people, including a school group of thirty children, are believed to have been exposed to virus infected birds, as an example of how poorly the Indonesian government has handled the outbreak thus far.

"People may never want to visit the zoo again after the government was so wishy-washy about whether the place was safe from bird flu or not," Yanti told the Jakarta Post.

Ragunan Zoo was closed on September 19 after twenty out of some thirty birds tested were found to be positive for the virus.

Yanti said it would only take one tourist to fall ill for the bad news to spread and begin to affect the vital tourist industry.

She said tourists were more afraid of an outbreak of disease than they were of a terrorist attack. Yanti called for measures to be taken now to halt the spread of bird flu, rather than trying to repair the damage once it was done.

Indonesia’s lacklustre response to the bird flu outbreak is now raising fears that the infections might be more widespread than they have so far announced. Indonesian government officials are refusing to initiate mass bird culls across the two thirds of the provinces already infected.



Rueters news service reported on the weekend that the Australian government is stepping up measures to prevent an outbreak of bird flu by targeting migrating birds from Asia now arriving in the far north of Queensland.

"Certainly they are a potential risk," Carson Creagh, spokesman for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, told Reuters.

But while many birds from Indonesia land in areas like the north western town of Broome, in the Northern Territory, some birds fly straight down to the eastern coastline.

Blood samples are now being taken from migrating birds in the far north Cape York region of Queensland, but tests have not yet turned up positive for bird flu.

While migrating birds could bring bird flu to Australia, United Nations research has shown the greatest threat comes from visitors carrying poultry or bird products, all of which are banned by Australia's strict quarantine laws.

Regardless, Australia reported more than five tonnes of poultry and bird products were seized from visitors arriving at international airports during the past twelve months.

There was also a threat from unusual medicinal practises using bird products, such as drinking the blood of an infected bird or “sucking the mucus out of the nostrils of fighting cocks”, according to Rueters.

Flights into Australia from 11 countries are now being screened in order to stop passengers from bringing poultry and bird products into the country.

Barbecued chickens, duck meat, chicken feet and duck tongues have been found in passengers luggage, despite numerous warnings during flights into Australia, and a string of warning signs and dumping stations leading up to customs desks.

X-ray machines, detector dogs and bag inspections are used to screen luggage and bags.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will now be spent overhauling the security of Australia’s airports.

1 comment:

Matt said...

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