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26 February 2005

Bird Flu Conference Calls on Donor Nations for Help

Ongoing regional epidemic could become global, experts fear

Ongoing bird flu outbreaks in Asia merit concern and attention from the international community, according to the conclusions of an international meeting on the disease held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, February 23-25.

Convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE for Organisation Mondiale de la Sante Animal), the meeting brought together veterinary officers from 28 nations to discuss ideas for containing the spread of avian influenza, which has plagued Asian nations for more than a year.

Hundreds of millions of birds have been culled at great cost to poultry producers in the region.  The disease has also crossed the species barrier with at least 55 human cases reported, according to the World Health Organization. 

International health officials suspect that the viral strain circulating in birds could mutate into another virus transmissible from human to human.  Should that happen, they say, a global flu pandemic could develop with the potential to cause tens of millions of deaths.

Veterinary officials in Ho Chi Minh City called on nations to wage a more proactive campaign to combat the disease. The conference also implored the international community to provide greater support to affected nations in their attempts to track the disease and develop better methods for containing it.  An estimated $100 million in assistance is required to upgrade veterinary services and laboratories in order to achieve that end, according to a final FAO report on the meeting. 

Top U.S. health officials recognize the magnitude of the bird flu threat and are providing both financial assistance and technical expertise to assist in the effort to combat the Asian epidemic.

The text of the FAO report follows:

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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Agriculture Department
Animal Production and Health Division

Leading veterinary experts of 28 countries call for more vigorous bird flu control
Control efforts still underfunded - combating bird flu should become top priority

25 February 2005, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam -- An international conference on avian influenza in Asia has expressed major concern about the bird flu situation in the region.

Chief Veterinary Officers from 28 countries called upon governments in the region and the international community to make the fight against the lethal virus a top priority and to commit more financial resources to national and regional anti-bird flu campaigns.

The 3-day conference ended today. It was jointly organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Animal and human health experts agreed that one year after the bird flu crisis, progress has been made in the early detection of and rapid response to the disease. There are less outbreaks in the region today than were recorded one year ago.

However, the virus is still circulating among poultry, ducks and wildlife in the region and continues to pose a serious threat to human health and animals.

More funds and more vigorous bird flu control campaigns in affected countries could help to control the disease in birds and thus avoid the risk of a global avian influenza pandemic in humans.

Countries hit by the virus should take a more proactive approach to combat the disease at its origin. Funding for this approach is considered essential.

Continuous threat to humans

The virus circulation in poultry producing rural and urban areas and market places requires more attention, according to conference participants. As long as the virus continues to circulate among animals, it will remain a threat to humans.

Massive public awareness campaigns should sensitize poultry producers and consumers throughout the food chain about bird flu related risks. Farmers and veterinarians should become the main allies in detecting the virus at the earliest stage possible to trigger immediate control interventions.

Spreading the disease

The conference also recognized the link between farming systems and the spread of the virus, especially the proximity between farmed chickens and ducks in many backyard households contributing to the circulation of the disease. In addition, the movement and marketing of live animals, not controlled by veterinarians, are a major cause for spreading the disease.

The conference recommended several strategies to minimise the risk of virus transmission between species and to therefore protect humans. These include segregation in farm settings of chickens, ducks, and other animals such as pigs and a reduction in contact between these animals and humans.

Delegates called upon the global community to help with the financing of these costly but vital changes. More than $100 million would be needed to urgently strengthen animal health services and laboratories to improve virus detection and its ultimate eradication.

Several hundred million dollars would be required to finance the restocking of infected poultry flocks and to restructure the whole sector.

Bird flu control campaigns (virus detection, culling, biosecurity and vaccination) should respect social, economic and cultural conditions in each affected country.

The meeting agreed that vaccines can be a strong weapon in the fight against the disease in poultry. The possibility of vaccinating ducks should be explored.

However, the conference acknowledged the need to further study conditions in which vaccines can be delivered with minimum risk to human health.

The bird flu virus does not respect borders and needs a strong regional response. Existing regional cooperation networks recently established by FAO should be extended. Without proper funding, these networks will cease their activities within the next six months.

Countries are urged to report occurrences of the disease to the OIE in a timely and transparent manner. They should also share information on disease outbreaks and campaigns with neighbouring countries.

There are between 25 and 40 million village backyard poultry farmers in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Thailand and Viet Nam. The majority of poor farmers keep poultry for income and food security.

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