$100 Million Bird Flu Plan Cheap Beside Cost of Human Pandemic

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 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 Viet Nam, 12 in Thailand and four in Cambodia.


Chickens for sale at a market in Hanoi, Vietnam (Photo by Hans Wagner courtesy FAO)
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.


Vaccinating the village chickens, West Java, Indonesia. 2004. (Photo by Larry Allen courtesy FAO)
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.