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UN experts, partners draw up $100-million plan to avert human bird flu pandemic

UN experts, partners draw up $100-million plan to avert human bird flu pandemic

United Nations experts and their partners today unveiled a $100 million programme to reduce the risk of bird flu spreading to humans and called on the global community to come forward with funds to help stave off the potential for a pandemic, which in a worst-case scenario could kill tens of millions of people around the world.

The strategy, directed at Asia, scene of recent outbreaks, includes educating small-scale farmers to segregate various species of poultry and animals, compensation to encourage them to report suspected outbreaks and apply control measures or culling, poultry vaccination in high-risk areas, 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," UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said at the end of the three-day conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, jointly organized by FAO, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the intergovernmental World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

"These include the way chickens, ducks and pigs are raised in close proximity to each other, often with no barriers between them and humans. 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, faeces, feathers and carcasses," he added of the H5N1 virus which has so far infected 108 people, killing 54 of them, since the first case linked to poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand was reported in January last year.

The virus, which delegates were told is taking an ever-tightening grip in some Asian countries has so far led to the slaughter of over 140 million chickens in an attempt to halt its spread.

WHO is concerned that continuing transmission from birds to humans might give avian and human influenza viruses an opportunity to exchange genes, producing a deadly pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, unrelated to the present virus, is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.

The meeting agreed that the situation in Asia was extremely dangerous but that there was still a window of opportunity to ward off a pandemic. It also affirmed that implementing the recommended measures would be beyond the financial means of most affected countries and called on the international community to help with funding.

"Without international support, poor countries will not be able to battle bird flu," Dr. Domenech said.