Attempts to avert a pandemic that could claim millions of lives and cost hundreds of billions of dollars take a step forward on Monday with a top-level meeting to flesh out global action plans against bird flu.
The risk of a human pandemic can still be cut, experts say
The three-day meeting in Geneva on avian influenza is the first to gather the World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO), World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
It comes at a critical time in the campaign to prevent the H5N1 virus -- a pathogen at present restricted to birds and humans who come into contact with infected fowl -- from mutating into a mass killer.
So far, more than 60 people have died since the virus was detected among poultry flocks in Asia in 2003.
Countries have culled around 150 million chickens, ducks and geese, quarantined suspected farms, barred imports and shored up veterinary surveillance. But these efforts have not even stopped the spread of the virus,
let alone rolled it back.
"This virus is very treacherous," says Margaret Chan, the WHO's point person on the H5N1 threat. "While we cannot predict when or if the H5N1 virus might spark a pandemic, we cannot ignore the warning signs."
Little by little, helped by infected migrating birds, the virus this year has crept out of its origins in Southeast Asia, heading northwards into China and into Siberia, and has now touched poultry in the southeastern corner of Europe. Africa, which hosts millions of migrating birds during the northern hemisphere winter, may now be exposed.
As the geographical spread widens, so does the risk that infected birds will pass on their virus to humans -- and that the avian virus will mutate by mingling with the conventional flu virus.
Strengthening international coordination
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan says improved compensation for farmers is necessary
The three-day Geneva conference will gather more than 400 animal and human health experts, senior policymakers, economists and industry representatives.
Their task is to make an up-to-date assessment of the problem, pool knowledge about national measures and strengthen international coordination against what is a global threat.
Priority number one is poultry, where the virus holes up.
"There is still a window of opportunity for substantially reducing the risk of a human pandemic evolving from H5N1 by controlling the virus at its source, in animals," says Joseph Domenech, the FAO's chief veterinary officer.
The list of needs is long. It includes better systems to monitor and report infections; more veterinarians to diagnose outbreaks; a swift response to contain outbreaks and cull suspected birds; vaccination of flocks against H5N1; greater resolve among countries to declare outbreaks and share virus samples; and compensating farmers whose birds are culled, to encourage honest reporting.
The OIE -- the paramount agency for veterinary health in food trade -- says an onus lies with wealthy countries to help developing nations, especially those in Asia where H5N1 is now endemic.
"If the international community does not help them in this way, there is every likelihood of global crises associated with emerging and re-emerging national diseases frequently occurring," the OIE warns.
The FAO and OIE have called for 150 million dollars in contributions for this, but so far only 30 million has been forthcoming, sources at those agencies say.
Preparing for a pandemic
Decontaminating a car in Croatia: Bird flu is on Europe's doorstep
Also pressing at the Geneva conference will be how to improve preparations for a human pandemic. The WHO appealed months ago for countries to draw up "action plans" for use if the feared mutated virus ever emerges.
Its recommendations include stockpiles of face masks, earmarking hospital beds that could be used in an emergency, protecting key personnel and deciding in advance on how to administer precious reserves of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu.
So far, only around 40 countries have heeded the WHO's advice, and many of their plans "remain embryonic at best," the British medical weekly The Lancet observed in a commentary on Saturday.