Bird flu experts meet to fight virus, complacency


  • World
  • Thursday, 07 Dec 2006

By Alistair Thomson

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Experts fighting bird flu around the world met on Wednesday to replenish their war chest and plot the next stage of their campaign to control the disease and avert a devastating human flu pandemic. 

The three-day meeting in Mali, the fourth global bird flu summit since late last year, includes a donor conference on Friday seeking an extra $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion over 2-3 years to add to $1.9 billion pledged in Beijing last January. 

Poultry seller Tidiane Diarra stands with a bound Guinea fowl hanging round his neck at Dibida market in Mali's capital Bamako, December 6, 2006. (REUTERS/Alistair Thomson)

But the meeting began with a warning that complacency threatened to undermine international efforts against bird flu. 

"Technical experts are sometimes accused of having overestimated the risks from this disease, or of exaggerating its potential threat," said Modibo Traore, head of the African Union's InterAfrican Bureau for Animal Resources. 

"The rampant demotivation that has resulted seems to have affected the main players in the struggle on all continents, and notably the donor community," Traore told the opening session. 

The outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza began in Asia in 2003 and spread rapidly in early 2006. 

It has been detected in more than 50 countries around the world, including eight in Africa, where experts fear veterinary and human health systems are inadequate to contain outbreaks. 

"It's not a lot of money: $500 million per year, divided by the population of Africa is less than a dollar each a year," United Nations influenza coordinator David Nabarro told Reuters in the Malian capital Bamako. 

So far the virus has killed 154 people who came into contact with sick birds and there are 258 reported cases worldwide. 

But worse than the devastating effects on vital poultry industries in poor and densely populated countries, scientists fear the virus could mutate to jump between humans, triggering a human flu pandemic that could kill millions of people. 

"The potential costs of an influenza pandemic would be of the order of $1-2 trillion ... and the actual cost of avian influenza thus far has been in the multiple billions of dollars," Nabarro said. 

TICKING CLOCK 

Ordinary flu kills around 250,000 people around the world each year, but every 20 years or so the virus changes enough to cause a much more deadly pandemic -- the worst in living memory being "Spanish influenza" which killed anywhere from 20 million to 100 million people in 1918 at the end of World War One. 

The last pandemic was in 1968 and experts say another pandemic could happen any time. 

"There is still a danger and the best solution is to finish with the virus in animals," said Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). 

Scientists say that is most likely to happen in Asia, which has the most infections, but Africa remains a weak link due to poor veterinary and public health services which are likely to give infections more time to spread before being detected. 

"The resources need to be mobilised and they need to be targeted at the countries at risk," said Ok Pannenborg, senior health advisor at the World Bank. 

The U.N.'s Nabarro was upbeat, saying with the right advice and support African countries could step up their controls to combat bird flu -- and that rich nations would be prepared to foot the $500 million-a-year bill. 

"Yes, I think the money will be pledged, because I think the world cares," he said. 

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