10-nation pact to curb flu menace

BANGKOK: Southeast Asian health officials agreed today on a strategy to prevent the spread of swine flu, while Hong Kong prepared to lift a week-long quarantine of nearly 300 people in a hotel where a Mexican traveller with the virus had stayed.

Health ministers and senior officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus China, South Korea and Japan declared they would step up monitoring and prevention efforts both nationally and regionally for swine flu, which has so far been officially reported in 2,371 people in 24 countries worldwide. There have been only a handful of cases in Asia. In all, there have been 44 deaths from the disease, which the World Health Organisation has warned could turned into a pandemic affecting millions.

Today’s declaration calls for exit screening of travellers to control cross-border spread of the disease - many countries now screen upon entry - and increasing stockpiles of medical supplies.

It urged the development of manufacturing facilities for anti-flu medicines, sharing of information and research, and technical and financial assistance from international aid agencies for stockpiling medicines and medical supplies.

Surin Pitsuwan, the ASEAN secretary-general, said the flu outbreak was “a wake-up call to remind us that we remain vulnerable to pandemic threats and garner the call to unity for continued vigilance in protecting our region from any disease threat.” Hong Kong, meanwhile, was getting set to end its week-long quarantine on the Metropark Hotel in the downtown bar and office district Wan Chai, which last week hosted a Mexican traveller found infected with the disease. Some 280 guests and employees trapped inside the building were to be released this evening.