KUALA LUMPUR, 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 birds.
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 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 Cambodia.
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 Domenech.
"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," he said.
"These activities constitute a high risk to people who are
exposed to contaminated animals or products, such as blood, feces,
feathers and carcasses," he said.
Under the plan farmers would be compensated for culling infected
flocks and for poultry vaccination in high-risk areas.
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 commitment."
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
"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
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
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