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Bird flu exercise tests APEC communications

Written by: Staff

CANBERRA, June 7 (Reuters) The 21 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group began a bird flu disaster exercise today to test how countries inform each other about the risks of a flu pandemic.

The exercise, the first of its kind to involve all major economies of the Asia-Pacific region, involves a hypothetical outbreak of the deadly virus among fishermen in an unidentified Asian village, which then leads to human-to-human transmission.

''Early notification and making sure early notification is to the right people in the different economies is absolutely central to us collectively developing a response to an international pandemic,'' exercise coordinator Trevor Clement told Reuters.

The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed more than 125 people worldwide since reappearing in 2003. Scientists fear it could evolve into a virus which can pass easily from person to person, triggering a pandemic that could kill millions.

China has reported almost 40 outbreaks of bird flu in poultry across a dozen provinces over the past year and 12 people are known to have died there of bird flu. In Indonesia, 37 people have died from the virus.

''It seems so simple, but it is remarkably complex when you are talking about communicating with 21 separate economies,'' said Clement, acting director general of Australia's disaster coordination centre Emergency Management Australia.

Australia and Singapore are coordinating the 24-hour exercise, which is designed to test phone, fax and e-mail communications between authorities among the 21 APEC members.

Under the exercise, suspicious symptoms are reported in a number of villages and in neighbouring countries. The infection is being called the Straits Flu and the World Health Organisation upgrades its pandemic alert, ordering affected countries to initiate containment measures immediately.

He said air travel meant people could spread the disease to different countries within hours, making fast notification of an outbreak crucial.

Clement said eight APEC members -- Chile, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam -- were primary players in the exercise and might have to advise of a hypothetical response to the situation.

Other APEC nations, including the United States, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, would play a secondary role.

Results of the exercise will be discussed by APEC officials in Singapore in August. ((BIRDFLU-APEC, reporting by James Grubel, editing by Rahul Sharma; james.grubelzreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: james.grubel.reuters.comzreuters.net, +612 6273 2730)) REUTERS CH KP1016

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