Bird Flu Experts in Mali to Raise Funds for Africa

BAMAKO, Mali, December 6, 2006 (ENS) - The deadly H5N1 bird flu virus remains a “potent threat around the world" to both animals and humans, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns in a statement prepared for delivery tomorrow at a major donor conference in Mali's capital Bamako.

“Failure by any one country to contain the disease could lead to rapid re-infection in many more countries,” says FAO Assistant Director-General Alexander Mueller. "One weak link can lead to a domino effect, undoing all the good that we have achieved so far," he cautions. "Now is no time for complacency."


African woman and her flock of chickens (Photo by Radhika Chalasani/IFAD courtesy Africa Renewal, UN)
More than 350 representatives from governments around the world gathered in this West African nation today for three days of meetings to evaluate programs to combat avian and pandemic influenza and to increase financial support for preparedness and response efforts.

Welcoming the attendees, Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure said, "This disease is currently a real threat for our populations. Its control is part of the numerous challenges for Africa and this can be achieved with the support of the international community."

Attendees at the 4th International Conference on Avian Influenza, hosted by the African Union and the government of Mali in conjunction with the European Union, are working to increase help for countries that face potential severe social and economic consequences from a bird flu or pandemic flu outbreak.

Chairperson of the African Union Alpha Oumar Konaré said, "Since the introduction of the disease in our continent in February 2006, Africa has suffered untold reversals of over US$60 million inter alia due to poultry mortality and culling of infected flocks and significant public health risks."


Alpha Oumar Konaré, a former President of Mali, chairs the African Union. (Photo courtesy African Union)
"The African Union is determined to support every initiative towards the control of the spread of the epizootics as well as the launching of a continental emergency preparedness and short-term strategies to prevent an eventual pandemic in the continent," said Konare.

At the meeting, health ministers, agriculture ministers, other officials and technical experts are discussing vaccination and communication strategies and ways to compensate poultry raisers who destroy their flocks to contain the virus.

In the opening conference sessions, representatives from Canada, China, Egypt, the EU, Indonesia, Nigeria and the United States described their experiences with bird flu, actions taken to stop the disease and strategies for increasing preparedness.

From the the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ron DeHaven, administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said, "Recognizing that H5N1 - highly pathogenic avian influenza - is still very much a disease of poultry, we are pleased to see the strong participation of many countries at this meeting in Bamako."


Ron DeHaven heads the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
DeHaven said the financial commitments made in Bamako will "maintain the momentum necessary to mount an effective global strategy."

Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, also representing the World Organization for Animal Health, said that in Africa the bird flu situation is complex.

Since the first incidence of H5N1 in Nigeria in January, seven other countries have been infected - Cameroon, Niger and Egypt in February; Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina-Faso and Sudan in March; and Djibouti in April.

The virus still circulates in Nigeria and Egypt, and Cote d’Ivoire still reports outbreaks. The virus may have died out in Cameroon and Niger.

The only African nations that have reported human infections are Egypt with 15 cases and seven deaths, and Djibouti with one case and no deaths.

Worldwide, there have been 258 human cases of bird flu since the beginning of the latest outbreak in December 2003, according to the World Health Organization. Of these infections, 154 people have died.


After dying of avian flu or being culled, chicken carcasses are burned at a farm in Long An province, near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (Photo courtesy FAO)
The greatest number of deaths in any one country, 93, have occurred in Vietnam, with Indonesia coming second with 74 deaths.

More than 200 million birds have died worldwide either from the virus or from preventive culling.

Africa poses a specific challenge because of the poor capacity of its veterinary services to control H5N1 infection, Domenech said.

“Given the weakness of surveillance systems [in Africa], we cannot be sure that endemicity has not been established in some regions,” he said. “Therefore, Africa must be a priority for support in the fight against avian influenza.”

The Bamako meeting is the fourth since September 2005 when President George W. Bush proposed an international partnership to fight the disease at a meeting of the UN General Assembly.

Members of the international partnership met in Washington in October 2005. They met again in Beijing in January, where donors from the global community pledged $1.9 billion in loans and grants to fight avian and pandemic influenza in Asia. The most recent meeting was in Vienna in June to coordinate plans and strategies.

Dr. David Nabarro, the senior UN system coordinator for avian and human influenza, said last week at UN Headquarters in New York that much progress has been made in combating the disease in 2006, but he warned against complacency.

The financial needs, particularly of African nations, have not been fully met, Nabarro said, and up to US$1.5 billion is needed over the next two or three years to fight bird flu, according to World Bank estimates.

There is no outbreak of human pandemic influenza anywhere in the world today. But public health experts say it is only a matter of time before an avian flu virus, most likely H5N1, mutates to a form that can easily be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza.

The experts say they do not know when this will happen, but they are certain that it will happen at some point in the future.