WHO Urges Better Vaccine Effort

Ducks rest at Shanghai Zoo Wednesday Dec. 7, 2005 in Shanghai, China.
The World Health Organization called Wednesday for more investment in developing a vaccine to protect people from bird flu as China reported its fourth human case of the disease.

A 10-year-old girl in the southern region of Guangxi has tested positive for the H5N1 virus, the Chinese government said. She has been sick with a fever and pneumonia since Nov. 23 and has undergone emergency treatment, it said.

Experts have warned that the virus could mutate and become more easily passed between people, sparking a global pandemic that could kill millions.

Scientists in several countries are trying to develop a human vaccine for the disease, which will be even more important than antiviral drugs in containing it, said Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China.

"We strongly believe there needs to be more investment" in a vaccine, he told reporters. Governments need to get involved with efforts by pharmaceutical companies, perhaps promising to buy vaccines once they are developed, he said.

Three of China's four human cases, including the latest one, have been found in areas where outbreaks of bird flu were not reported.

This shows "there's still an issue of public awareness of what to look for when chickens get sick," Julie Hall, an infectious disease expert at the WHO office in Beijing, said this week.

In related developments:

  • Vietnam has banned pharmacies from selling the anti-bird flu drug Tamiflu, saying improper use could cause the virus to develop resistance to the medicine, officials said Wednesday. Residents afraid of contracting bird flu have rushed in recent weeks to buy the drug. All medicines are sold over-the-counter in Vietnam.
  • Indonesia is seeking copyright protection for any bird flu vaccine developed by a locally-based U.S. Naval laboratory, officials said Wednesday. A contract for the NAMRU-2 medical unit expires Dec. 31 and will only be extended if an agreement can be reached that is beneficial to Indonesia, said foreign ministry official Arif Havas Oegroseno. That would include a guarantee that the government would be rewarded financially if a bird flu vaccine was developed using Indonesian strains of the virus.
  • On Wednesday, diplomats from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, opened talks in Malaysia's main city, Kuala Lumpur, to discuss regional cooperation and threats of terrorism and bird flu in preparation for a meeting of their leaders on Monday.
  • The United States relaxed a ban on poultry imports from British Columbia initially sparked by the discovery of bird flu in a duck raised in the Canadian province. The strain of bird flu is now known to be low-pathogenic and poses no threat to human health, unlike the more virulent form in Asia that has killed dozens of people, the Agriculture Department said.