4 Min Read
By Isabel Reynolds
TOKYO, March 21 (Reuters) - Japanese health officials issued an alert over giving flu drug Tamiflu to teenagers on Wednesday as Myanmar reported a further outbreak of bird flu in poultry.
Tamiflu is regarded as one of the main drugs effective against a bird flu pandemic, but a series of cases, including teen suicides in Japan, have fuelled concern the drug could induce psychiatric symptoms.
Swiss drug-maker Roche said on Tuesday that new data from Japan and the United States indicated there was no established causal link between Tamiflu and psychiatric symptoms.
But early on Wednesday, Japan's Health Ministry said it had ordered the importer of Tamiflu to warn doctors against giving it to teenagers after two new cases of abnormal behaviour were reported.
Two teenagers injured themselves in February and March by falling from buildings after taking the drug, a ministry news release said.
A total of 15 young people have been injured or killed in similar incidents since 2004, Kyodo news agency reported the ministry as saying later.
Countries around the globe have been stockpiling Tamiflu, which health officials widely regard as effective in treating symptoms of H5N1 infection if given early enough.
There is no commercially available vaccine for the virus, which has killed at least 169 people around the globe since the disease re-emerged in Asia in 2003.
A 21-year-old Indonesian woman died of bird flu on Monday, bringing the human death toll in the country from the virus to 66. The same day, Egypt said a 2-year-old boy had tested positive for bird flu.
Myanmar said a chicken farm had been hit outside Yangon, where the H5N1 virus reappeared in four areas last month.
The government, in an announcement published in state newspapers, said more than 20,000 chickens had been slaughtered on the farm about 40 km (25 miles) north of the capital.
Indonesia, which has the world's highest bird flu death toll, has created a roadblock to vaccine development by demanding guarantees before sharing virus samples.
Sharing of virus samples is crucial as it allows experts to study their make-up and map the evolution and geographical spread of any particular strain. Samples are also used to make vaccines.
"If the rule is not changed there will be a huge gap between rich and poor countries and this will perhaps threaten world peace," Indonesia's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, told reporters on Wednesday.
Supari said the virus-sharing scheme under the World Health Organisation (WHO) system did not guarantee poor countries access to vaccines and urged rich nations to help the developing world with the technology to produce them.
The WHO and health ministers from the Asia-Pacific region are due to meet in the Indonesian capital from March 26-27 to try to sort out a deal.
In Hong Kong, where H5N1 made the first known jump to humans in 1997, experts renewed calls for the government to ban selling live poultry after a baby picked up a mild form of bird flu from a market.
The grandmother of the nine-month-old girl had taken her to a neighbourhood wet market every day in the week before she fell ill, and a senior health official said on Tuesday the baby had probably contracted the H9N2 virus during these visits.
"The only gap in our defence against bird flu is the wet market. This shows humans can get infected in such a setting. Something must be done to the poultry stalls in our markets," Lo Wing-lok, an infectious disease expert, said.
The 1997 outbreak of H5N1 infected 18 people, killing six of them, and led to the mass culling of the city's poultry. (Reporting by Aung Hla Tung in Yangon, Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong and Ahmad Pathoni in Jakarta)