International animal and human health experts today unveiled a multi-point plan designed to reduce the risk of the H5N1 avian influenza virus spreading from poultry to humans, and appealed to the international community to come forward with funds to make it work and help stave off the risk of an influenza pandemic.
The strategy was drawn up at a three-day conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attended by experts from around Asia, as well as by senior representatives of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The plan will be the basis for urgent actions by affected states and will be made available to the international community to help donors focus on the areas of highest need.
The conference took place against the backdrop of a growing threat from the avian influenza H5N1 virus, which has so far infected 108 people in Asia, killing 54 of them and raising fears of an influenza pandemic. The virus, which delegates were told is taking an ever-tightening grip in a number of Asian countries, has so far led to the slaughter of over 140 million chickens in an attempt to halt its spread.
The meeting agreed that the avian influenza situation in Asia was extremely serious but determined that there was still a window of opportunity to ward off a pandemic.
Delegates concluded that priority should be given to the situation in small-scale and backyard farms, the scene of the majority of human cases since the avian influenza outbreak became known in early 2004. Recommendations covering this type of small-scale farming included:
- To educate farmers and their families about the dangers of high-risk behaviour and how to change their farming practices.
- To ensure the segregation of different species, including chickens, ducks and pigs, and to eliminate intermingling between these animals and humans.
- To provide adequate compensation and/or rewards for farmers to encourage them to report suspected avian influenza outbreaks in their flocks and to apply control measures.
- To pursue the vaccination of poultry flocks as part of a multi-element response to the avian influenza threat in high-risk areas.
''We agreed that it is vital to urgently change or even end a number of farming practices that are dangerous to humans,'' said Dr Joseph Domenech, Chief Veterinary Officer with the FAO. ''These include the way chickens, ducks and pigs are raised in close proximity to each other, often with no barriers between them and humans. Another area of concern is wet markets, where animals are often slaughtered in unsanitary conditions. These activities constitute a high risk to people who are exposed to contaminated animals or products, such as blood, faeces, feathers and carcasses.''
These practices increase the danger of an interspecies transmission of avian viruses, with the risk of an exchange of genetic material and the emergence of a new virus that could endanger human health.
Dr Shigeru Omi, Regional Director of the Western Pacific Region of the World Health Organization, welcomed the strategy and said it would give the world a fighting chance to beat the H5N1 virus. ''We have no illusions about hard the job will be,'' he said, ''but we are not powerless. This plan gives us a real chance to make a mark on history -- as long as we work together with maximum energy and commitment.''
Dr Dewan Sibartie, Deputy Head of the Scientific and Technical Department of OIE, explained that it had been imperative to come up with a plan that would work. He added: ''The acceptance of vaccination by WHO and the international scientific community as an important additional tool in the control of the disease in animals is particularly welcome, provided that the vaccine used complies with OIE standards and that vaccination is carried out under the supervision of OIE and veterinary services.''
The conference agreed that implementing the recommended measures would be beyond the financial means of most of the affected countries and called on the international community to help with funding. ''What this action plan will cost is nothing compared with the financial and economic consequences of an influenza pandemic,'' said Dr Sibartie.
An FAO and OIE strategy for the control of avian influenza in Asia will cost around $100 million to support surveillance, diagnosis and other control measures, including vaccination. ''Without international support, poor countries will not be able to battle bird flu,'' said Dr Domenech.
WHO estimates the cost of an effective response on the public health front at about $150 million, mainly for capacity building in affected countries, including emergency support in the areas of laboratory diagnosis, vaccine development, surveillance and public education. Some of the funds would be earmarked for antiviral drugs and personal protective equipment for people most at risk of infection.