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Health Experts Unveil Global Strategy to Tackle Bird Flu

Experts focused on controlling the spread of the H5N1 virus in animals as well as preventing a possible human pandemic.

“The world recognizes that this is a major public health challenge. [The World Health Organization] is ready to focus its resources to reduce the risk of a human pandemic. We have plans on paper, but we must now test them. Once a pandemic virus appears, it will be too late,” said WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook at the conference’s conclusion.

The WHO strategy aims to stop the virus at its source in animals and humans by strengthening veterinary services and laboratories used to detect the virus, implementing early warning systems, improving countries’ pandemic preparedness plans and communicating to the public. It also includes more research into pandemic vaccines and antiviral drugs and a commitment to make antiviral drugs easier for poorer countries to purchase.

The World Bank estimates the plan could cost up to $1 billion over the next three years, with half of it provided through its grants or interest-free loans and half through a fund financed by donors. The cost does not include stockpiling of antiviral drugs and human flu vaccines or compensating farmers for loss of income due to animals that have been killed. It does cover the needs of countries already affected by the virus and those at high risk, including funding flu pandemic plans.

Health officials say compensation for farmers who are required to kill their poultry would encourage them to report outbreaks. Since the outbreak of the H5N1 strain in early 2003, around 150 million birds have been culled in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading.

Bird flu remains an animal disease but it has killed over 60 people in Southeast Asia, most of whom worked in close contact with sick birds. WHO has warned that H5N1 is a virus that has the potential to spark a human influenza pandemic if it becomes easily transmittable from human to human.

The talks drew a total of 600 delegates from over 100 countries, WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the World Bank, donor partners and regional organizations involved in fighting the bird flu.

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