Cablegate: Vietnam - Avian Flu (Ai) Update #14

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A


1. U) The WHO investigative team continues to report 23
confirmed human cases of H5N1, of which 15 have died. While
the confirmed case count is unchanged, suspect cases are
daily identified, many of which are ruled out. One new case
occurred in a district of a province that had not reported
cases in poultry for many days. Media reports expressed
concern that this is a new outbreak, but because that
province had previously reported 7 affected districts, the
case is likely explained by "re-spread".


2. (U) Lack Of Complete Human Case Reporting - On February
20, WHO representatives sent a letter to the Minister of
Health (MOH) expressing their concern with the lack of
transparency of case reporting from MOH. There is no
information from MOH on demographics or case descriptions.
On February 23rd, WHO received a request from MOH to
translate the letter into Vietnamese, indicating that the
MOH is focusing attention on the letter. To date, MOH has
not yet replied.

3. (U) Emphasis On Animals vs Humans - WHO representatives
also expressed concern to the Deputy Prime Minister over the
fact that animal issues of avian influenza are receiving
more attention than human issues. There are two indicators
that this is true. First, the Ministry of Agriculture and
Rural Development (MARD) distributed an action plan to
address short to long-term strategies for addressing avian
influenza; but no such plan has been unveiled by the MOH.
The second indicator is the placement of the MARD as the
chairperson of the National Steering Committee to Combat
Avian Influenza.

4. (U) Culling - There is still no reliable information on

5. (U) Coordination Within The GVN - Planning and
coordination within the MARD's Department of Animal Health
is poor. They are completely unaware of some of the
research being done elsewhere in Vietnam (by other GVN
entities) and there is no structure established for animal
surveillance. Some labs, such as NIHE, have been told to
halt efforts to sequence H5N1 due to safety concerns, e.g.,
use of live virus in a non-BSl3 laboratory, while other labs

6. (U) Lab Delays - WHO reports that although NIHE is
processing human specimens on the day of receipt, there are
significant delays in the reporting of results to the
hospitals. The Tropical Medicine Center claims that there
are outstanding results from several weeks ago.

7. (U) Lab Safety and Quality - WHO laboratory experts have
met with staff from the National Pediatrics Hospital (NHP).
Issues of biosafety and quality assurance remain, and need
to be addressed. WHO will prepare a report containing
recommendations for improving lab performance and submit it
to the MOH and to NHP. WHO also plans to provide financial
support to the molecular lab at NHP on condition that the
recommendations are followed and that the laboratory is
supported by NIHE. NHP has processed (using PCR tests) 26
influenza samples - none has been H5 positive.

8. U) Vaccine Distribution - 21000 Doses of Tamiflu have
arrived for use as prophylaxis. Despite the fact that WHO
had suggested that about 5000 go to healthcare workers and
the remainder for animal health, it appears that the
majority have gone to healthcare workers.

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9. (U) On February 19 and 20, the WHO, CDC and Thai Ministry
of Public Health presented a workshop on human Influenza A,
H5N1, for laboratory specialists and epidemiologists.
Countries represented in the training included: Bangladesh,
Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao,
Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines,
Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

10. (U) A description of country-specific surveillance
programs and laboratory capacity illustrated the variation
in capability and needs within the region. Lack of capacity
hampers the possibility of performing adequate serologic
surveillance, as well as diagnoses. A number of countries
expressed concern about the ability to transport samples to
reference laboratories, the availability of trained
personnel, reagents, laboratory equipment, and capital to
sustain a functioning laboratory.

11. (U) The WHO reference laboratory scientist in Hong Kong
made a strong plea for countries to share their H5N1 viruses
with the WHO lab so that there is a representative sample of
circulating H5N1 strains for use in vaccine development and
evaluation of any genetic drift. Genotyping of the
available samples show slight variations in the genome of
currently circulating strains. While
Vietnam and Thailand have shared their H5N1 viruses with
WHO or CDC, China has not.

12. (U) Information on the sensitivity of current Influenza
A tests indicate that for any one person known to have
Influenza A of any subtype (through positively tested
contacts), there is a 33% chance that all the tests
available to diagnose influenza will be negative. This
means that one third of all cases exhibiting symptoms caused
by avian influenza, not to mention all of the mild or
subclinical cases, will be missed. Therefore, there is a
high probability that cases of human infection of Influenza
A/H5N1 are being missed.

13. (U) There was considerable discussion of the 1997 H5N1
outbreak in Hong Kong. In studies of persons likely to be
exposed to poultry in the markets (poultry workers), 10% of
the workers tested positive for H5N1 antibodies (meaning
that they were infected), but showed no clinical symptoms of
the disease. The other 90% had no detectable circulating
antibodies. This means that transmission to humans is
relatively low and that it is very likely that there are
unapparent infections of H5N1. Description of the outbreak
included measures taken by Hong Kong to reduce the
reintroduction of H5N1 into the bird market, including
biosecurity, immunization and administrative controls.

14. (U) The representative of Vietnam for epidemiology (from
the National Institute for Hygiene and Epidemiology) did not
seem to be aware, or could not articulate clearly, what
epidemiological studies were being conducted in Vietnam.

15. (U) CDC researchers working in HCMC as consultants for
WHO expressed considerable frustration at the excruciating
pace at which the GVN is moving to conduct a case control
study of cases and close family members and a cohort study
of people living in and around cases and unexposed
individuals. To date, data collection has not been started.

16. (U) A human vaccine strain for H5N1 has been developed
that is safe enough for labs to work with, but induces
antibodies to H5. However, it needs much more testing.

17. (U) H5N1 is a fairly resistant virus and can live in
water and moist feces at 4 degrees Celsius for up to 7 days.

18. (U) There was consensus in the epidemiology group of the
need for a standard case definition for human influenza
H5N1. Country representatives expressed concern over the
complexity of the definition. As a result, representatives
from WHO-WPRO volunteered to revise the case definition
based on information about H5N1 learned during the past

19. (U) One of the 'experts' noted that virus has been
detected in raw poultry meat and egg yolks from infected
birds. Therefore, the current wisdom of eating only cooked
poultry and eggs, or not at all, is appropriate in affected

20. (U) A sample of 7,000 wild birds in China showed very
low prevalence of H5N1 in wild birds - although they
acknowledged that the virus was present in some. The
speaker also noted that wild birds tend not to be
concentrated in areas where humans inhabited and were
unlikely to pose a large threat to humans.
21. (U) During the week of February 16, WHO collected data
for a seroprevalence study of nurses at NHP who did, and did
not treat patients with H5N1 infection. It is unclear how
long it will take to analyze the questionnaire data and
serum and laboratory where the serum will be analyzed. On
February 23, WHO reported that 8 more nurses were surveyed
and their serum was collected and frozen. The team in HCMC
continues to negotiate with Vietnamese counterparts to
conduct a similar study there.


22. (U) On February 19, WHO/FAO/UNDP held a briefing for
Ambassadors on the status of avian influenza in Vietnam.
Ambassador De Jong (Netherlands) and Jordan Ryan, UNDP
representative, co-chaired the meeting.

23. (U) Case Descriptions - Dr. Peter Horby (WHO) described
the cases and deaths in Vietnam and Thailand. He noted the
distribution of cases is similar by sex (52 percent male),
and most cases (2/3) are in children (with the remaining
mainly confined to young adults under 40). In Vietnam, cases
are clustered in provinces around and including Hanoi and
HCMC. This is believed to be a surveillance artifact --
hospitals in the two cities are actively searching for
cases, and surrounding provinces are more likely than others
to refer very sick people to Hanoi or HCMC hospitals. Dr.
Horby also showed an epi-curve, a distribution of cases over
time, showing no rise but no drop in numbers of cases in
humans thus far, suggesting this epidemic is still ongoing.
If the epidemic were subsiding, the number of cases would
drop off. He noted that the current epidemic now constitutes
the largest known outbreak of avian influenza in humans.
Prior outbreaks were in Hong Kong in 1997 with 18 cases
(H5N1) and the Netherlands in 2002 which had 1 case.

24. (U) Case Descriptions Continued - Five virus strains
from Vietnam have been genotyped thus far, and none
contained human influenza genotypes suggesting that the
reassortment to a new human strain has not occurred, at
least in these cases. These viruses are sensitive to
oseltamivir (Tamiflu) but resistant to cheaper and more
easily obtained antiviral drugs such as amantadine.

25. (U) WHO Activities - WHO described their activities to
date. Pascal Brudon, WHO country representative, described
their primary objectives. They are increasing capacity for
labs to diagnose H5 and appropriately use Personal
Protective Equipment (PPE) and for hospitals to
Conduct active surveillance. In Vietnam, passive
surveillance is the norm. Difficulties noted in
surveillance were (1) promoting transparency with MOH, (2)
encouraging MOH to actively follow cases to identify the
likely source of infection and actively trace cases to rule
out/in person-to-person transmission, (3) prevention of
poultry-to-human transmission through training courses for
cullers, use of PPE, providing drugs for early treatment of
those diagnosed, and promoting information/education widely
through the media. Brudon felt FAO & WHO are doing "quite a
good job" providing guidance and support to clinicians (a
clinical team from Hong Kong was just brought in by WHO to
consult on this issue).
26. (U) WHO Activities Continued - Brudon compared this
outbreak to SARS, and noted that, with influenza, WHO has
been able to achieve a lot very quickly (e.g., guidelines,
surveys, active websites). She noted the team is still
concerned about the effectiveness of hospital surveillance
and monitoring of cases. She reiterated their attempts to
encourage dialogue with the government about transparency.
She noted that WHO's investigative team in Vietnam will be
diminishing since a number of priority areas for WHO support
are already completed. She also mentioned that they are
working with WHO headquarters in Geneva and their regional
office on ways to help governments develop plans to ensure
effective distribution of human vaccines when those are
available. Availability of human vaccine is admittedly many
months down the road, she stated.

27. (U) FAO Activities - Anton Rychner noted that domestic
birds in 57 provinces, including 400 of Vietnam's 502
districts (80 percent), were affected and 35 million birds
have perished. He is frustrated that FAO now must pay to get
data from the GVN, and voiced concern that the 3 phased
effort (short-term, medium-term, long-term) promoted by the
GVN was not comprehensive and it is unclear how it could be
coordinated at various levels. He noted that the GVN is now
"limiting access" to his staff, and "shutting down
communication lines." He stated that he believes the GVN is
"doing its best with limited resources" but that "the
outbreak is not under control." He asked Ambassadors to
urge the GVN to be transparent about the details of the
outbreak. He also noted MARD's limited staff and the fact
that only 4 officials there speak English and must work with
all international efforts -- the demands on their time by
internationals "are enormous". Finally, Rychener introduced
Dr. Tony Forman, a veterinarian, who is helping with FAO

28. (U) Donor Coordination - Jordan Ryan, UNDP
representative, introduced Mr. Terje Skavdal from the UN
Office of Coordination on Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA).
Mr. Skavdal heads up the emergency response unit for OCHA
for southern and eastern Asia, and arrived in Hanoi on
February 15th. Upon arrival, he met with Deputy Prime
Minister Vu Khoan on the need for heightened coordination
among various parts of government, and the DPM seemed very
interested in promoting this. Skavdal stated that based on
his assessment the emergency is still ongoing, and it was
not possible to establish a time frame on when it would be
over. He stressed the need to push for a strong
multisectoral approach to deal with the emergency. He
encouraged good collaboration and use of the technical
agencies (such as the UN) as much as possible, and
consideration of needs (short-term, medium-term, and long-
term) both for the UN groups and for the GVN. It will be
important to disseminate a list of needs to the donor
community and NGOs, and to start information sharing to
avoid overlaps/ensure efficient use of funds. He will focus
on 3 areas: (1) responsibility -- how best to support the
GVN in adopting this, (2) similarity -- strategies that have
worked in other settings, and (3) working on the lowest
possible operation level to ensure efficient dispersal. He
notes they are still in the discussion phase and hope to
look at various alternatives.

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