Health Ministers Pledge Coordinated Fight Against Bird Flu

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, October 26, 2005 (ENS) - Health ministers and experts from 30 countries, both developed and developing, agreed Tuesday in Ottawa on a set of key policy priorities and actions that must guide international efforts to prevent, prepare for, and respond to an influenza pandemic.

They stressed that, while at this time, there is no pandemic influenza anywhere in the world, vigilance and surveillance need to remain high. Ministers agreed to work together with one another and with the multi-national agencies such as the World Health Organization and the World Animal Health Organization.

Canada's Minister of Health Ujjal Dosanjh said Canada has developed a comprehensive Pandemic Influenza Plan. "We have a responsibility to work beyond our borders and engage the international community," said Dosanjh." By calling for and hosting this meeting, Canada is encouraging all countries and international health organizations to work together to reduce the threat of emerging infectious diseases."

"The time has come to accelerate international cooperation," said Dosanjh.


Ujjal Dosanjh of Vancouver convened the avian flu meeting in his role as as Health Minister of Canada. (Photo courtesy )
In their joint communique, the ministers recognized that efforts to prepare for and control a potential pandemic must include civil society, academia, media, consumers and the private sector, at the local, national, regional and international levels, for effective global coordination.

There is a difference, ministers said, between seasonal human influenza outbreaks and the current outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in poultry and migratory birds that began in December 2003 in Asia, and has now spread as far away as Russia and Eastern Europe.

An estimated 150 million birds have died or been destroyed because of the H5N1 virus. In four nations, 121 humans have contracted the virus, most from touching sick birds, but a handful from other sick people. Sixty-two people have died.

To become a pandemic flu strain able to infect humans, the H5N1 virus would have to mutate to allow it to transmit easily from person to person. The delegates agreed that it is essential for countries to monitor the H5N1 virus and increase efforts to prepare for an influenza pandemic.

"We recognize that we are all in this together and what affects one country can ultimately affect us all," said Canadian Health Minister Dosanjh, who chaired the meeting.

"We have been guided by two over-riding principles," Dosanjh said. "First, everyone agrees it is critical that countries urgently and proactively share information if and when an infectious outbreak occurs. Second, we must continue to support the leading role of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations."

The ministers agreed that the development, production, access and distribution of vaccines and antiviral drugs are common challenges that have scientific, technical, economic and policy dimensions.

They agreed to include vaccines and antivirals as key components in pandemic influenza preparedness and response plans both at the national and international levels and agreed to work collaboratively between countries to advance vaccine and antiviral research and development.


Anthony Fauci heads the U.S. National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. (Photo courtesy NIAID)
Ministers pledged to develop mechanisms to increase production capacity, and enhance pharmaceutical delivery so that there can be equitable access to vaccines and antivirals worldwide.

They called for a meeting of drug regulating authorities to develop a framework to address common regulatory challenges to expedite vaccine registration and availability.

"You can get rid of the 'if' because it's going to occur," Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has said. "It may not occur this year, or next, he said, "but it is not going to go away."

Ministers recognized that coordinating risk communication activities among countries and multilateral institutions is essential to inform the public, avoid panic, and prevent economic and social disruption.

The ministers urged that risk communication be included as part of national pandemic preparedness planning, and they plan to establish information-sharing protocols among countries and multilateral organizations to ensure effective and meaningful communications before and during a pandemic. They said research is needed to determine effective risk communication approaches.

They agreed that effective partnerships should be developed with media and other key stakeholders for the exchange and dissemination of accurate and timely information that encourage appropriate public health and animal husbandry practices by individuals and communities to protect against infection.


Sick chickens at a trader's premises in Sumatra, Indonesia. (Photo by Larry Allen courtesy FAO)
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is undertaking a new campaign to target bird flu in backyard poultry farms in Indonesia.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing $1.5 million for the initiative to improve capabilities of animal health technicians and veterinarians to search out avian influenza and act quickly to control it.

"We are very much concerned about the presence of the virus in the small flocks of millions of backyard poultry farmers, said Joseph Domenech, FAO chief veterinary officer. "There still seems to be a lack of awareness in the rural and suburban communities about the threat the virus poses to humans and animals."

FAO officials today expressed concern about general and pre-emptive bans on poultry imports adopted in response to avian influenza.

Import bans on poultry that do not distinguish between infected and non-infected countries are contrary to the spirit of the World Trade Organization, standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health and recommendations made by FAO, the UN agency said in a statement.

As countries establish pre-emptive import bans on poultry to prevent possible bird flu outbreaks, FAO noted that in some cases, the bans include poultry from all countries, even those considered to be free of highly pathogenic avian influenza and those that have never experienced an outbreak of H5N1.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday Indonesia was investigating the deaths of dozens of backyard chickens on the resort island of Bali that are believed to have died from the bird flu, officials said.

Indonesia has confirmed seven of the human cases, but press reports from the region suggest many more suspected cases. A UN task force in Indonesia this week began a door-to-door campaign to help poultry farmers deal with the pathogen. In addition, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is coordinating a health response from the national level on down to the many districts and local communities.

In Croatia, officials confirmed Wednesday that the H5N1 strain of bird flu virus had killed wild swans found dead at a pond in eastern Croatia on October 3.

Germany and Greece are still testing dead birds to see whether avian flu was the cause of death.

China Tuesday reported the virus in chickens and ducks in a village in the central province of Hunan. China has reported no human cases to date.

The FAO-USAID program will work to train hundreds of animal health technicians, following an example set by Thailand, where public health officials have been successful in limiting disease outbreaks.

A new United Nations task force warned Tuesday against the "over-simplified" perception that wild birds are the main cause of avian flu, and urged immediate measures be taken among both domestic and wild bird populations to guard against its possible transference.

Governments, local authorities and international agencies need to take a greatly increased role in combating the role of factory-farming, commerce in live poultry, and wildlife markets which provide ideal conditions for the virus to spread and mutate into a more dangerous form, the Task Force convened by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Convention on Migratory Species said.

William Karesh, Task Force observer, and director of Field Veterinary Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said, "We are wasting valuable time pointing fingers at wild birds when we should be focusing on dealing with the root causes of this epidemic spread which are clearly to be found in rural poultry practices, the movement of domestic poultry, and farming methods which crowd huge numbers of animals into small spaces."