Wealthy nations and donor agencies should provide US$260 million to international bodies so they can help developing countries in Asia fight bird flu, says the World Health Organization's regional director for the western Pacific.
In an interview with the Bulletin of the World Health Organization today (1 November), Shigeru Omi said funding was urgently needed for better disease surveillance and diagnosis, and to stockpile flu drugs against a potential pandemic.
He said the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since 2003, was now entrenched in the region. Scientists fear it could mutate into a form that spreads between people, sparking a human flu pandemic that would kill millions.
Most people infected with the virus live in rural areas, said Omi, adding that poor awareness of the virus and how it can spread means that cases can go unreported.
Countries in the region are "doing their best", he said, but they will not be able to deal with bird flu alone.
"The international community, partner agencies and donor agencies need to help countries to cope with this daunting challenge," said Omi.
"US$260 million sounds like a very big figure," he added. "But it is worthwhile for the international community, because if we are faced with an influenza pandemic, economies will lose billions of dollars."
Omi said the World Health Organization needs "US$160 million for the next couple of years" to support the reporting, surveillance and diagnosis of outbreaks, and to stockpile flu drugs in strategic locations so they can be made rapidly available in the event of an outbreak of bird flu in humans.
In addition, he said, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have requested US$100 million for short-term efforts, including making poultry farming more hygienic and improving surveillance for signs of bird flu.
A spokesperson at the UK Department for International Development told SciDev.Net that a conference for donors to pledge funds is likely to take place early next year.
The spokesperson said that the agency would attend a conference at the World Health Organization's headquarters in Geneva next week to discuss its response to bird flu.