Asia-Pacific health ministers said on Friday that a "climate of fear" that accompanies the outbreak of infectious diseases such as bird flu could have a devastating impact on Asia's economies.
The APEC Health Ministers conference in Sydney ended on Friday with a commitment to share virus specimens and vaccines and to work to encourage investor and consumer confidence to help Asia-Pacific economies recover in the event of a pandemic.
"The climate of fear that disease outbreaks such as avian influenza bring can rapidly sap the confidence and enterprise that underpins the economic dynamism of our region," Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott told the conference.
The health ministers endorsed a plan called "APEC Functioning Economies in Times of Pandemic Guidelines" which aims to assist in managing economies during a pandemic. The guidelines cover communications, essential services, financial systems and movement between and within countries.
"We recognise that healthy populations contribute to economic growth and development. Conversely, any threat to the health of a population can have a devastating effect on prosperity," the ministers from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said in a statement.
The ministers said that the Asia-Pacific needed to replicate the co-operation seen during the SARS respiratory crisis in 2003 to combat the threat of a bird flu pandemic.
"The global nature of pandemic influenza and other virulent disease demands international solidarity, co-operation and co-ordination of efforts...for the sharing of information and resources," said the ministers.
There have been 189 deaths globally from the H5N1 bird flu virus since late 2003 and 310 known infections in total, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data. Indonesia has recorded 79 human deaths from bird flu, the highest in the world.
"WE MUST REMAIN VIGILANT"
The H5N1 strain of bird flu was mutating unpredictably and at a rapid pace, a senior WHO official told the health ministers.
"The virus is already entrenched, embedded in this part of the world and...it has been very, very unstable and changeable," said Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.
"If we put (these two points) together, it's a very clear indication that we have to remain vigilant."
Indonesia said on Wednesday the H5N1 virus might have undergone a mutation that allows it to jump more easily from poultry to humans, but stressed the findings were preliminary.
Indonesia is struggling to contain the disease because millions of backyard chickens live in close proximity to humans across the archipelago. Contact with sick fowl is the most common way humans become infected with bird flu.
"The possibility of a pandemic arising from avian influenza presents a significant threat to human health security," said the health ministers.
"It would be dangerous to assume that because there is no current global pandemic outbreak the job is done."
The ministers backed a WHO plan to share virus specimens, necessary to develop a vaccine, and to share vaccines in the event of a pandemic.
"We aim to ensure and promote the transparent, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from...information, diagnostics, medicines, vaccines and other technologies associated with the sharing of virus samples," they said.
Indonesia said last month it had resumed sharing samples with the WHO after a five-month hiatus. Along with other developing nations, Indonesia has been demanding guarantees that they will have access to affordable vaccines in the event of a pandemic.