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Foreign Minister discusses avian flu.

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E and OE

6 October 2005


Minister for Foreign Affairs

Interview - 6PR

HOWARD SATTLER - PRESENTER : First up, today, it's absolutely crystal clear that the government and health authorities around Australia are taking the approaching deadly bird flu pandemic seriously. And later this month there is to be a conference on this, at a senior level in Australia, and this was announced today; a regional summit will be held in Brisbane on October the thirty-first to devise a strategy to combat it.

Joining me now is the minister who announced that today, Alexander Downer, he's the foreign affairs minister, of course. Hello Alexander, how are you?


SATTLER : Okay, well, your colleague and fellow minister Tony Abbott certainly has been portending that things could get absolutely horrendous with this. Now, what do you think?

DOWNER : Well, the probability of avian flu mutating, as they say, into a virus that can be transmitted between human beings is said to be around ten per cent. And I mean, that's what the scientists say. And if that were to happen, then it could spread extremely quickly, and it's quite fatal.

I mean, not everybody who gets avian flu dies, but quite a high percentage of them do. So, we are being very cautious about it and making sure that there isn't just a national response, and Tony Abbott's responsible for that, but we have an Asia-Pacific response and

we're using APEC as the vehicle to do that.

SATTLER : Okay. Do you think there's any doubt that it will reach our shores?

DOWNER : Look, it's hard to judge. I mean it's, okay, it's avian flu, it's bird flu, it's transmitted through birds and birds migrate, so it's possible …

SATTLER : Millions of them.

DOWNER : Millions of them. So, and they do migrate in and out of Australia. So yes, it could reach our shores, but then, at the moment it can only be transmitted from a bird - or that includes things like ducks, by the way.


DOWNER : It can be transmitted from a bird to a human being. And you would, it's possible it could reach our shores and you could get a few cases.

SATTLER : Well, it's already in Indonesia and today I've just seen another release, two more Indonesians have died from it.

DOWNER : Yeah, and off the top of my head, so don't hold me to this, that's somewhere around thirty people who have died in Indonesia as a result of avian flu. So the numbers are quite high. It's found its way from places like Indonesia and East Asia, all the way across to the Western part of Russia. It hasn't got into Western Europe, but it has got into Russia, so there aren't a lot of cases around the world, but there are some.

I suppose in the last year there have been thirty, forty people who have died from avian flu.

SATTLER : We'll be talking to the World Health Organization's people later, and we've done that before.


SATTLER : They're estimating it could lead to a global death toll of a hundred and fifty million, and even US scientists are saying today … they're likening it to the Spanish flu virus that killed fifty million people back in 1918.

DOWNER : Yeah, I mean, the hundred and fifty million figure, it's a bit higher than our worst-case …

SATTLER : That's the high end, I know.

DOWNER : Of course, I was just going to say, look, I mean, that's the highest estimate I've heard and there's some controversy in the World Health Organization as to whether they think that figure's accurate. I don't think, in a way, that matters. The point is that even if it mutated, if it could be transmitted between human beings - there's a ten per cent chance of that - then it could kill an enormous number of people, and it could kill people in Australia, and that's why we do need to make sure we have a pretty stringent sort of approach to it, and we're trying to put that together with our neighbours.

See, in our country, which has got high standards of hospital care and good doctors and so on, that's one thing. But in the developing world it's much harder to control something like this.

SATTLER : All right. Now, if it really got in

here big time, I don't know whether our hospital system could handle it. They're pretty strapped at the moment. I have been told that at least one section of Melbourne Airport's been set aside to maybe be turned into a temporary hospital ward to cater for this. Have you heard about that?

DOWNER : I haven't, no, I haven't. You'd have to check that with the Victorian Health Department. Look, I mean, the first thing to say is that as quickly as possible, we need to produce more of the antidote to avian flu, the antivirus. And there's this antivirus called Tamiflu which is the more normally used one, apparently it can be quite effective …

SATTLER : Well, apparently we've sent up sixty thousand doses of Tamiflu to Indonesia already, is that right?

DOWNER : Fifty thousand, yes, we have - fifty thousand courses, so you have to take it several times to complete a course …

SATTLER : Should we be keeping this …

DOWNER : Well, the last thing we want to do

is see Avian flu spread around Indonesia and then eventually spread into Australia, so the further from home it can be contained, obviously, the better.

SATTLER : So what sort of things are going to be talked about at this conference on October the thirty-first, because I know that in America the President there is even talking about maybe using the military to impose quarantine zones.

DOWNER : Well, the first thing is that you've got to identify it, and so we need much better systems around the Asia Pacific region to identify a situation where somebody may have contracted avian flu. Secondly, they've got to be isolated. So where there are people who are getting it, those people have got to be isolated as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, the antivirus has to be disseminated as quickly as possible and there isn't enough of it at the moment, so there needs to be more production of it so that it doesn't spread any further. And well, obviously those who do contract it have an opportunity to recover.

So there's a fair way to go yet. I mean, I think in this country we're moderately well organised and I think Tony Abbott's made that point that when you go into South East Asia and North Asia, they're a long way short of being organised to handle it.

SATTLER : So, can you tell us any of the specifics that are going to be talked about at the summit?

DOWNER : Well, the first specific will be identification and the question is whether to assist developing countries in the region identify whether somebody has got avian flu, teams should be created which can quickly be sent in. For example, we could contribute to a team ourselves - of experts who could immediately say be sent to Vietnam or Cambodia or somewhere, could go straight to work in a particular case where there's somebody suspected of having avian flu, and in those circumstances assist with the host country's effort to isolate that particular case or series of cases.

The second thing that we'll be looking at will be the production of the antivirus, how much

more do we need of this Tamiflu and what medical research needs to be done on alternatives to Tamiflu in case avian flu develops the capacity to overwhelm Tamiflu. And there's some concern that that might be the case.

SATTLER : Gee. All right, anything we can do or members of the public here, to don't touch chooks or what do we do?

DOWNER : Well yes, I mean, currently I've asked experts about how people do contract avian flu, but it's things like plucking birds, you know, that, chooks in particular, that they're going to eat and it sort of gets into their system from that.

So one of the things to watch for is birds themselves, with particularly domesticated birds that you might come into contact with …


DOWNER : … rather suddenly dying and you're not sure why they've died, why they've suddenly dropped dead. That's one of the first signs that the bird may have got avian flu, and

then of course, the question is, what contact have you had with the birds?

SATTLER : Yeah, a lot of people have got chook runs too in Australia. We used to when we were kids. So probably, what, you'd call the health department if that occurs and get them over there.

DOWNER : You would indeed, yep. Absolutely.

SATTLER : All right. Well, there's a lot more to be talked about here. Let's hope it doesn't become a problem. We'd better be ready for it. Thanks for your time.

DOWNER : Sure. Pleasure, Howard.

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