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[NEW DELHI] Weak disease-surveillance and inadequate aid are thwarting efforts to control bird flu in Asia, according to a senior official of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The organisation's assistant director-general, He Changchui, was speaking at a press conference following a meeting of health and agriculture ministers from 11 Asian nations in Delhi, India last week (27-28 July).

He said international aid was a third of what was needed to combat the epidemic in the region.

In a joint declaration, the meeting's delegates pledged to strengthen systems for detecting and containing bird flu outbreaks in people and poultry. They agreed to improve collaboration and share more information on outbreaks and research into the H5N1 bird flu virus and how it spreads.

Experts fear that the virus will mutate into a form that can easily infect and spread between people, sparking a human flu pandemic that could kill millions.

Samlee Plianbangchang, the World Health Organization (WHO) regional director for South-East Asia said: "The catastrophic impact of inadequate preparation for this pandemic will be well beyond human imagination."

Changchui called on aid agencies to loosen their purse strings. He said that the region needs US$300 million over the next three years to fight the virus, but that so far only US$62 million has been given and another US$92 million pledged.

Bird flu has cost the region more than US$10 billion in the past two years, and has led to more than 200 million birds being culled, said Changchui.

"The region needs vigilant surveillance and timely reporting and action to control the infection," he told SciDev.Net.

The meeting, organised by the WHO, heard mixed news from the frontlines of the war on bird flu. After an eight-month hiatus, Thailand is witnessing a resurgence in infections, with the WHO confirming the death of a man last week.

Meanwhile India plans to announce that it is bird flu-free on 10 August, after three months without an outbreak. Also this month, India's High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal announced it had developed a bird flu vaccine for poultry that is awaiting large-scale trials.

Ministers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand attended the meeting.

They urged organisations such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation to work with international bodies such as the WHO, Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to help countries develop strategies for controlling bird flu.