Malaysia, July 7, 2005 (ENS): International
health experts have unveiled a $100 million plan to
reduce the likelihood that bird flu could spread to
humans and and have asked donors to step forward with
funding. Dr. Dewan Sibartie with the World Organization
for Animal Health said, "What this action plan
will cost is nothing compared with the financial and
economic consequences of an influenza pandemic."
Announced Wednesday at the close of a three day meeting
in Kuala Lumpur, the strategy centers on changing farming
practices across Asia, where a deadly strain of influenza
has claimed human lives in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia,
and resulted in the culling of more than 140 million
The meeting participants agreed that the avian influenza
situation in Asia was "extremely serious"
but determined that there is still a window of opportunity
to ward off a pandemic that, in a worst-case scenario,
could kill tens of millions of people around the world.
The H5N1 avian influenza virus has so far infected
108 people since the first case linked to poultry outbreaks
in Vietnam and Thailand was reported in December 2003.
A total of 55 people have died from bird flu in Asia,
including 39 in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four in
Health experts worry that continuing transmission from
birds to humans might give avian and human influenza
viruses an opportunity to exchange genes, producing
a deadly pandemic.
Organized by three UN agencies, the World Health Organization
(WHO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE),
and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the
meeting produced a strategy that includes educating
farmers, compensating them for reporting bird flu outbreaks,
and changing animal slaughter practices.
"We agreed that it is vital to change or even
end a number of farming practices that are dangerous
to humans," said FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph
"These include the way chickens, ducks and pigs
are raised in close proximity to each other, often with
no barriers between them and humans," said Dr.
Domenech. "Another area of concern is wet markets,
where animals are often slaughtered in unsanitary conditions,"
"These activities constitute a high risk to people
who are exposed to contaminated animals or products,
such as blood, feces, feathers and carcasses,"
Under the plan farmers would be compensated for culling
infected flocks and for poultry vaccination in high-risk
Dr. Shigeru Omi, regional director of the WHO's Western
Pacific Region, said the strategy would give the world
a fighting chance to beat the H5N1 virus.
Although the H5N1 virus has not yet mutated to become
easily spread among people, the risk of a pandemic is
not receding, Omi said. The virus remains as unstable,
unpredictable and volatile as ever, he said, pointing
out that the virus reappeared in China last month, killing
6,000 migratory birds.
"We have no illusions about hard the job will
be," Omi said, "but we are not powerless.
This plan gives us a real chance to make a mark on history
- as long as we work together with maximum energy and
The health experts called on the global community to
come forward with funds to implement the strategy, which
will serve as the basis for urgent actions by affected
countries. "Without international support, poor
countries will not be able to battle bird flu,"
Dr. Domenech said.
Bird flu must be prevented at the source, said Domenech,
who called on all governments to step up animal vaccination
programs. He asked that China be more transparent about
its efforts to control the spread of the virus, and
curb the reported use by Chinese farmers of human antiviral
drugs to treat poultry.
Dr. Sibartie, who serves as deputy head of OIE's Scientific
and Technical Department, said it is "imperative"
to come up with a plan that will work, and held out
hope that vaccination might be an effective tool in
the battle to wipe out the H5N1 virus.
Vaccination has been controversial because it could
also lead to the evolution of new strains, research
shows, increasing the risk of a human pandemic. Only
intensive surveillance can prevent this, but the affected
countries do not have the necessary systems in place.
"The acceptance of vaccination by WHO and the
international scientific community as an important additional
tool in the control of the disease in animals is particularly
welcome," said Dr. Sibartie, "provided that
the vaccine used complies with OIE standards and that
vaccination is carried out under the supervision of
OIE and veterinary services."
Vaccines may keep birds from becoming sick, but low
numbers of viruses can still replicate inside their
bodies and spread from bird to bird. The key is to detect
and destroy these infections, either with sentinel birds,
or with marker vaccines.
Vaccine used without these monitoring tools can become
a way to spread the virus, rather than control it, animal
health experts warn.
The conference delegates agreed that implementing the
recommended measures would be beyond the financial means
of most of the affected countries and called on the
international community to help with funding.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights