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Although the threat of a bird flu pandemic continues to grow, quick action by governments and health organisations can prevent a widescale outbreak among humans, Reuters reports.

Speaking at a two-day bird flu conference in Tokyo, Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific, said: "As the new cases of human infection with the H5N1 virus in Turkey show, the situation is worsening with each passing month and the threat of an influenza pandemic is continuing to grow every day.

"We must try to ensure that we will be ready to respond instantly with all the weapons at our disposal should the early signs of an influenza pandemic appear. If we can achieve this rapid response, we may have a good chance of halting the spread of the virus before the situation becomes uncontrollable, or at least of slowing it down. But if we fail, the consequences for societies, economies and global public health could be immeasurable."

WHO has fingered the casue of the recent Turkey outbreak as "weak surveillance". WHO consultant Doctor Hitoshi Oshitani noted that it had taken local authorities more than 16 days to report a bird flu outbreak to the organisation. He said: "The way we are doing this now is too late. We must shorten the duration between detection and reporting so we can contain the virus." Oshitani added less than two weeks should be the goal.

Regarding practical measures to combat the H5N1, Omi concluded by warning against over-reliance on drugs such as Tamiflu. "Vaccines and anti-viral drugs are very effective. But they are not panaceas," he said.

The current official bird flu death toll stands at 78. ®

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