KUALA LUMPUR: Some Muslim countries are ill-prepared to tackle an outbreak of bird flu because of poor resources and public apathy, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said at a meeting of Islamic nations on Wednesday. Health ministers of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) open a two-day meeting in the Malaysian capital on Thursday to map out a common plan to tackle a possible influenza pandemic and fight polio and malaria. WHO official Hassan El Bushra told reporters the Jeddah-based OIC could help member states produce bird flu vaccine and anti-viral drugs. Some countries, including Malaysia, have begun programs to reach self-reliance in making vaccines and cut dependence on Western supplies. But officials said the wide economic disparity among OIC nations – which range from wealthy oil-rich Saudi Arabia to poor war-torn Somalia and Afghanistan – could undermine the group s ambitions to jointly fight bird flu. There is big disparity between countries. Some countries can do a lot but some countries are really in need, said El Bushra, who tracks communicable diseases in the Eastern Mediterranean. Three leading OIC states – Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey – are already among the world s worst-hit countries. There have been 190 deaths globally from the H5N1 bird flu virus since late 2003 and 312 known infections in total, WHO data show. Indonesia has recorded 79 human deaths from bird flu, the world s highest. Egypt 15, and Turkey four. Muslim countries, with a total population of 1.3 billion people, should step up public awareness and education about bird flu, El Bushra said. Some people cannot understand why should you cull all the poultry in one village when only one person is found sick, he told reporters. They need a lot of education. A Malaysian health official said the risk of human-to-human transmission of bird flu was growing. A pandemic could spread fast, strain health care services and hurt global economies, Hassan Abdul Rahman, director of disease control at Malaysia s Health Ministry, told the meeting. There s a 90 percent chance the pandemic will start in Asia, he said. Malaysia found the H5N1 bird flu virus in chickens in a village near its capital last week and culled poultry nearby as a protective move. It has reported no human cases, but the incident was the first time bird flu had been found since March 2006.
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