International health and agriculture experts yesterday (6 July) revealed a strategy to help poor countries prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic.
The plan was announced at a meeting organised in Malaysia by the World Health Organization, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health.
It focuses on educating small-scale farmers and their families about the risks of living close to animals and of housing different species, such as chickens, ducks and pigs in the same enclosures.
These practices increase the risk of the bird flu virus mutating into a form that is more easily transmitted between humans and that could trigger a global flu pandemic (see Bird flu virus found in Chinese pigs).
Delegates at the meeting said most Asian countries that are affected by the bird flu outbreaks could not afford to implement the measures recommended by the experts.
"Without international support, poor countries will not be able to battle bird flu," says a statement from the meeting delegates. "What this action plan will cost is nothing compared with the financial and economic consequences of an influenza pandemic."
They urged international donors to contribute US$100-150 million to ensure the plan is successful.
As well as for public education, these funds would be used for outbreak surveillance, vaccinations and vaccine development, and improving laboratory facilities.
The statement also said governments should continue to vaccinate poultry and compensate or reward farmers to encourage them to report suspected bird flu outbreaks and to practise safety measures.
"We agreed that it is vital to urgently change or even end a number of farming practices that are dangerous to humans," said Joseph Domenech, FAO's chief veterinary officer.
Delegates at the meeting also expressed concern over the "unsanitary" conditions in which animals are often slaughtered in Asian markets. They said this poses a risk to humans who might be exposed to contaminated blood, faeces, feathers and carcasses.
"The meeting agreed that the avian influenza situation in Asia is extremely serious, but determined that there was still a window of opportunity to ward off a pandemic," said the statement.
Since 2003, the bird flu virus has infected 108 people in Asia, killing four in Cambodia, 12 in Thailand and 39 in Vietnam.
Initially, the virus killed most of the people it infected, but this has changed since the beginning of 2005. The virus appears to still be highly infectious but less deadly to humans, which experts say could pose a greater threat as it means that infected patients can spread the disease further.
So far, the WHO has not confirmed any cases of human-to-human transmission. Infected people appear to have acquired the virus from contact with infected birds.
But experts fear that if the virus were to mutate to a form that could jump from person to person, this could trigger a global pandemic that could kill millions.
"We are at a tipping point. If we do not do anything, the situation will worsen to the point that inevitably — we do not know when — this virus will develop into a pandemic strain," said the Western Pacific spokesman for the WHO, Peter Cordingley.The Malaysian conference brought together about 60 health and agriculture experts for three days.