US officials launch bird flu stockpile in Thailand (AFP)

BANGKOK (AFP) - US officials on Tuesday officially opened a stockpile of equipment in Thailand designed to help Asian nations react rapidly to battle outbreaks of potentially deadly bird flu.

The US ambassador to Thailand Eric John presided over the Bangkok launch ceremony for the Regional Distribution Centre (RDC), which is located in Thailand´s eastern province of Chachoengsao.

"The RDC will help ensure that countries in Asia will be able to take fast action to counter avian influenza without endangering the lives of rapid-response teams," John said.

"This centre will help ensure that avian influenza outbreaks can be contained safely and efficiently," he added.

The warehouse, funded by the US government´s aid arm USAID, will initially stockpile 45,000 protective suits, 400 decontamination kits, 10 laboratory specimen kits and other equipment worth a total of 548,300 dollars.

John MacArthur, infectious diseases advisor with USAID, warned that bird flu remained a serious threat in the region around the Mekong river, and said the kits could be shipped to outbreaks within 24 hours.

Authorities in Laos earlier this month reported a fresh bird flu outbreak near its northwest border with Myanmar and China, while Vietnam has so far reported five bird flu deaths this year.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed that 236 people have died worldwide from bird flu since 2003.

The H5N1 avian influenza virus mainly kills animals but scientists fear it could mutate to easily jump from human to human, sparking a global pandemic.