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A global network should be set up to monitor animal infections and provide early warnings of diseases — such as SARS and bird flu — that could spread to people, say health specialists.

Writing today (9 September) in Science, Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands and colleagues say that the monitoring of such infections in animals is often sporadic and poorly coordinated, despite the threat they pose to people.

Animals, especially wild species, are thought to be the source of more than 70 per cent of emerging infections.

But domestic animals tend to be monitored only for known infections, while surveillance of infections in wildlife "is less intensive to nonexistent, particularly in developing countries", say the scientists.

They add that there are few guidelines on how outbreaks should be reported internationally.

The bird flu epidemics that have spread rapidly in South-East Asia highlight the inadequacy of existing monitoring, say the experts.

Some countries took as long as seven weeks to report cases of the highly infectious and dangerous disease, despite the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) advising that outbreaks should be reported immediately.

The scientists say united international action is needed now more than ever because the bird flu virus could spark an influenza pandemic in humans (see Time to prepare for bird flu pandemic 'running out').

Among Osterhaus's co-authors are Klaus Stöhr, the World Health Organization's (WHO) leading influenza expert, and Malik Pieris, the virologist who led Hong Kong's efforts to control SARS.

They say bodies such as the OIE, WHO and UN Food and Agriculture Organization should form a working group of about ten specialists. The group's mission would be to set up a global surveillance system to give early warnings of infections that could harm people emerging in animals.

The scientists stress that this monitoring network should work in harmony with public health surveillance systems.

The working group would identify gaps in existing surveillance systems, help develop and distribute ways of diagnosing infections, and pinpoint barriers to effective surveillance — such as, conflicting roles of different authorities. This would cost about US$4-5 million for the first three years, say Osterhaus and colleagues.

The add that it is in wealthy nations' best interests to invest in improved animal surveillance in all parts of the world because infectious organisms do not respect national borders.

Link to full article in Science

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