Investing today in the control of the bird flu virus in animals is cheap compared to the costs of a global pandemic that could occur tomorrow

The global strategy for the control of avian influenza in animals remains largely under-funded despite important contributions pledged by some donors, FAO warned today.

"It makes sense to stockpile antiviral drugs to protect humans against a potential avian influenza pandemic, but at the same time we have to contain the virus at source, in animals, to reduce the risk to people," said FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech.

"Strong national veterinary services are essential to improve the early detection of avian influenza. The rapid exchange and analysis of virus samples require additional resources to immediately respond to avian influenza outbreaks," Domenech said.

The Global Strategy for the Progressive Control of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza launched by FAO, the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) and in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2005, for control programmes in southeast Asian countries, has called for over $100 million for the next three years.

To date, donors such as Germany($6 million), Switzerland($4 million), the United States($6 million) and Japan($0.5 million) have pledged around $16.5 million. FAO will provide another $2 million from its own resources. The World Bank and the European Commission are also planning to heavily invest in controlling bird flu.

"This support is excellent, but it marks only a starting point and unless it translates into further financial funding to support affected countries, the cycle of bird flu infection that will occur in poultry this winter will not be stopped," Domenech said.

The circulation of so much influenza virus in animals in many countries in close proximity to humans remains a major risk factor that could trigger a pandemic, FAO warned.

There is still a small window of opportunity before winter to reduce the levels of infection through vaccination of poultry. In countries like Viet Nam it is the only way that the levels of infection can be dampened down in the short time available. It involves mass vaccination of poultry, especially in the smallholder sector where there is also close contact between poultry and humans.

"Countries in Asia are doing their best to control the virus but they cannot and should not be expected to do this job on their own," Domenech said.

Thailand has successfully managed to control the avian flu virus and no additional human cases have been reported recently. Viet Nam has already embarked on an ambitious program to vaccinate all poultry in provinces at risk. The country will need an additional $10 million to implement its vaccination programme, upgrade laboratory facilities and ensure post vaccination surveillance programmes.

Indonesia also needs strong financial support to improve the efficiency of ongoing vaccination campaigns.

FAO called again upon countries along the pathways of wild birds to set up early warning and surveillance programmes. India and Bangladesh, Central Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa should develop national prevention, early detection and rapid response plans.

"These national activities will require additional donor support of around $50 million for the next three years," Domenech said.

The major part of these funds should be used for awareness building, training, protective equipment, the upgrading of laboratories and the surveillance of wildlife and poultry farms. National resources by countries at risk will not be sufficient to finance their control strategies, Domenech said. On the global level, monitoring, coordination and the work of reference laboratories should be supported.

Investing today in the control of the bird flu virus in animals is cheap compared to the costs of a global pandemic that could occur tomorrow.

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