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Global Experts Devise Action Plan to Fight Bird Flu

Experts at a global conference in Geneva have acted with unprecedented speed to agree on an aggressive blueprint to tackle bird flu, and strengthen plans to cope with a possible pandemic among humans.

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Tackling the problem at its source

Around 600 experts representing governments, international organizations and companies contributed to the WHO's action plan on bird flu, which gives highest priority to fighting the virus at its source -- outbreaks among birds.

To that effect, governments are to increase veterinary surveillance to detect outbreaks, implement the preventative vaccination of poultry, cull infected flocks, and compensate farmers for their losses.

"The world recognizes that this is a major public health challenge," said WHO Director General Lee Jong-wook at the end of the three-day conference. "Once a pandemic virus appears, it will be too late."

Vogelgrippe WHO Konferenz in Genf

Director of the World Health Organization, Lee Jong-wook, left

Up to a billion dollars will be needed over the next three years to help poor countries shore up their defences, including 35 million needed immediately for action over the next six months. Financial support is an important element of the action plan, said WHO influenza expert Klaus Stöhr, as many of the countries likely to be most affected by bird flu are too poor to implement the required procedures to fight the virus.

"It comes down to developed countries deciding how far they want to go in preparing themselves for the next pandemic, and how much money they can give to Asia, Africa and South America," Stöhr said.

To help developing countries, the World Bank will hold a minister-level donors' conference in Beijing in January.

Preparing for a pandemic

For preparation in the event of a pandemic, the focus is on strengthening health monitoring systems, stockpiling of antiviral drugs to dampen the spread of an outbreak and exercises to train medical personnel and the public.

Experts acknowledged, though, that the billion-dollar figure was little more than a stab at quantifying costs.

It does not include the cost of stockpiling antivirals or compensating farmers for culled flocks, both liable to surge if the scare amplifies.

"These figures would go through the roof in the case of a pandemic," said World Bank spokesman Phillip Hay.

Swift decision-making

The speedy, ambitious action plan marks a break in the history of how mankind has tackled new diseases.

In the case of AIDS and SARS, novel pathogens gained a vital foothold through delays in spotting them, bureaucratic delays or cover-ups and lack of funding.

H5N1 Elektronen-Mikroskop-Aufnahme des Vogelgrippe-Erregers H5N1 Vogelgrippe Wissenschaft

The bird flu virus strain H5N1 could mutate and become a threat to humans

"If sufficient political will is there to shore up necessary resources, then we believe the likelihood of a human influenza pandemic can be very substantially reduced if not avoided," said Samuel Jutzi, director of the Food and Agricultural Organization's animal production and health division.

"There's consensus, clarity, and there's much better communication," said David Nabarro, the UN's coordinator on flu. "I think we'll be much quicker to control avian influenza as a result and if a pandemic starts there's a pretty good chance it will be smaller as a result of the work we've done in the last three days than it would have been otherwise."

Sixty-four people have died since H5N1 erupted among Asian poultry flocks in 2003, according to a WHO toll and national figures. Around 150 million fowl have been slaughtered, and the economic bill is put at more than 10 billion dollars.

At present, H5N1's lethal stretch to humans is limited. It is picked up by people who are in close proximity to infected birds, and in its present form, it is not very transmissible from human to human. The big worry is that it could gain genes by mixing with conventional flu strains that would make it both highly contagious and deadly.

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