JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's decision to report bird flu cases in humans only every six months, rather than immediately, is irresponsible and could lead to delays in containing outbreaks of the disease, a scientist said on Friday.
Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari, who has clashed with the international community and United States over her handling of health issues, on Thursday said her ministry had changed its policy and would only report cases every six months.
She did not say whether that reporting policy also included the World Health Organization (WHO). But a health ministry official said on Friday that the ministry had not decided yet whether it would report to the WHO every one, two, or three months.
"It's a drawback," said Gusti Ngurah Mahardika, a bird flu researcher at Bali's Udayana University.
"It's an obligation (to report) not only every day, but every minute if there's a new development. If they only report to WHO every six months, it will be too late to recognize if there's a new development towards a pandemic."
WHO officials in Geneva said they are still seeking confirmation of the new policy.
With 108 confirmed human fatalities from bird flu, Indonesia has the highest toll of any nation. Since the virus resurfaced in Asia in late 2003, it has killed 241 people in a dozen countries, according to the WHO.
Supari has attracted criticism from the international community for her stance on sharing bird flu samples.
Officials in Indonesia have said they want to ensure equal access to any vaccines that are made against bird flu, but U.S. Health Secretary Michael Leavitt said in April after visiting Jakarta that Indonesia also wanted payments.
The United States and Indonesia are also locked in a dispute over the future of a U.S. naval lab in Jakarta, mainly over virus transfers and the number of U.S. staff allowed to have diplomatic status.
International health experts say it is vital to have access to samples of the constantly mutating H5N1 virus, which they fear could change into a form easily transmissible among humans and sweep the world in months, killing millions of people.
"We are obliged to report to WHO, we are also obliged to report it to the public," said Nyoman Kandun, director-general of communicable diseases at the health ministry, adding that the new policy was meant as a better way to "package" the information.
Indonesia so far has maintained its decision not to share bird flu samples, saying it wants guarantees from richer nations and drugmakers that poor countries would get access to affordable vaccines developed from their samples.
Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Sara Webb and David Fogarty