Global battle plan to beat bird flu

In a three-day meeting in Geneva as many as 400 health and veterinary officials representing international agencies, are attempting to establish a global strategy to stop the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus triggering a human pandemic of bird flu.

David Nabarro, the senior U.N. coordinator for avian and human influenza, has said he expects health and veterinary officials to draw up a sweeping battle plan against the disease this week.

Nabarro says that a global programme would require investment in veterinary services, boosting human disease surveillance, scientific cooperation on vaccine development as well as negotiations with drug companies on access to existing antivirals.

The disease which has to date killed more than 60 people in Asia, has the potential to develop into a human pandemic that could kill millions.

According to Nabarro as part of the plan, the World Bank has proposed setting up a fund to help both countries and agencies respond to the crisis.

Nabarro says he believes there is a good chance that people will pledge to accept a set of basic principles and elements for what will become an international programme to be presented to communities over the next couple of months.

Jim Adams, the World Bank's chief for operations policy and country services, who will make a financial presentation to the talks on Wednesday, has said a trust fund would require initial donations of $300 million to $500 million to help countries set up programmes.

That still has to be decided.

The World Bank is suggesting a flexible and responsive set of systems in order to meet the requirements of the donor nations.

Nabarro, a former senior World Health Organisation (WHO) official named by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the new post in late September, has said that three days was a short period to meet such a huge challenge.

Nabarro says preliminary discussions on establishing regional stockpiles of vaccines and antivirals were expected, but he cautioned that "difficult dilemmas" would need to be resolved over time on where the stockpiles would be placed and who would decide when they should be used.

The deadly H5N1 virus is known to have killed 63 people in four Asian countries and led to the culling of 150 million birds worldwide.

It has recently been detected in birds in eastern Europe and experts expect it to reach the Middle East and Africa in the near future.

Nabarro stresses the importance of the world being prepared for a bird flu epidemic extending into the Middle East and Africa but expresses the hope that they are stamped out as effectively as they appear to have been in some isolated European outbreaks.

He believes the problem is a global one and as yet there is little reason to think that the pandemic will start in countries currently affected by avian influenza, though that is where most concerns are presently focused.

On a more comforting note Nabarro said that recent initiatives by ASEAN countries, the United States, Australia and Canada had contributed to a "considerable degree of political energy" on the issue.

Nabarro, who was in China for talks 10 days ago, also said that Chinese officials appeared committed to playing a "very overt and central role" in the fight against bird flu.

Chinese state media said on Sunday that all poultry in the northeast province of Liaoning would be slaughtered after 9,000 birds died in the vast country's fourth outbreak in a month.

Nabarro confirms that the Chinese authorities are determined to be clear and open about what is happening.

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