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ASEAN 'prepared' for flu fight

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AFP

A quarantine officer monitors travellers with a thermal scanner at an arrival gate at Suvarnabhumi International Airport on Monday.

JAKARTA - Regional cooperation to deal with SARS and avian influenza has left Southeast Asia in a stronger position to tackle an outbreak of swine flu, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said Monday.

"ASEAN member states are now intensifying surveillance, coordinating and collaborating in the sharing of pertinent information, raising public awareness and taking necessary precautionary public health measures," ASEAN said in a statement.

"ASEAN member states are better prepared now following the experience from recent SARS and avian influenza outbreaks. ASEAN has the existing mechanisms and networks for strengthening preparedness and response to a possible pandemic."

Existing stockpiles of around 1 million doses of antiviral drugs could be used to deal with swine flu, it said.

"ASEAN has 500,000 courses of antivirals stockpiled in Singapore, and an additional 500,000 courses have been distributed to ASEAN member states."

Probable swine flu deaths in Mexico, the source of the outbreak, have reached 103, with about 400 people in hospital and 1,614 under observation.

The only other confirmed cases in the world have been in the United States, where 20 people have the disease; Canada, where there are six; and Spain, where one man is infected.

But the outbreak has still sparked worldwide concern.

Airport checks across the region have been stepped up, several regional countries have banned pork imports and medical facilities have been put on high alert for any patients showing flu-like symptoms.

Many of the measures being activated were set up during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which killed some 800 people, mainly in Hong Kong and China.

The epidemic gave Asia "a badly needed lesson for surveillance and the right infection control mechanisms", Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the WHO's Western Pacific office in Manila, told AFP.

"Asia is better prepared and in a better position than others (as a result)," he said.

Despite the improvements, Cordingley warned against complacency: "Every country in the world is at risk."

Other experts warned that biosecurity black spots remained in the region.

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