Experts demand more funds to stop the spread of bird flu

At a meeting in Beijing to whip up funds for the global fight against bird flu, the European Union has raised its contribution to the fund by $20 million taking their total commitment to $120 million, but other contributions appear to be thin on the ground.

Meanwhile the announcement by Indonesia of the death of a 3-year-old boy who was being tested for H5N1 avian influenza, following the death of his 13-year-old sister a few days earlier from the virus, is serving to highlight the extent of the problem.

Turkey too is apparently treating another child for bird flu, which brings the number of human cases there to 21 since the beginning of the year.

The outbreak in Turkey is of particular concern as it the disease is now at the gates of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

According to drug company Roche, makers of the influenza drug Tamiflu, it has donated 2 million more treatment courses of the drug to the World Health Organization (WHO) in an attempt to control the outbreaks.

Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's senior influenza coordinator, says they will be used as a 'fire blanket' to contain damage if signals and evidence from the ground indicate that a pandemic is imminent.

Roche has already donated 30 million capsules of Tamiflu to the WHO stockpile for this purpose.

According to both Turkish and WHO officials they have had success in quickly treating suspected bird flu victims with Tamiflu, but in Vietnam some patients have died from the virus despite the use of the drug, which could indicate the virus has already begun to evolve resistance.

At present the only other licensed drug shown to work against H5N1 influenza is Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline, however there is hope that the smaller BioCryst Pharmaceuticals will be granted fast-track status for its experimental influenza drug Peramivir by the the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA has already given its approval for the human testing of intravenous Peramivir to begin.

Although none of these drugs will cure the bird flu, they may lessen the effects.

To date H5N1 has killed just under half of 150 or so people it has infected, however for some reason, which at present is unclear, the mortality rate in Turkey appears to be lower.

The latest Turkish case is an infected child, again in the village of Dogubayazit, close to the Iranian border, where four Turkish children have already died from the virus.

Joseph Domenech, the U.N Food and Agriculture Organization's Chief Veterinary Officer, admits the virus is moving closer to the western part of the world.

He and other experts warn that unless money is provided to improve veterinary services and animal surveillance, the virus will spread further and will create greater opportunities for chickens to infect people.

The main concern all along has been that the virus will mutate to easily spread from person to person, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.

Qiao Zonghuai, Chinese vice foreign minister, has said at the Beijing conference, which is sponsored jointly by the Chinese government, the European Commission and the World Bank, that there is a such a significant shortfall of funds in many affected countries that it will seriously hamper their prevention and control efforts.

According to World Bank estimates between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion will be needed to prepare for and respond to outbreaks.

The bank says a bird flu pandemic lasting a year could cost the global economy up to $800 billion.

The U.S. Insurance Information Institute has reckoned that a pandemic could cost the U.S. life insurance industry $133 billion in extra death claims if 1.9 million Americans were killed.

Dr. Chan, the WHO's top pandemic expert, says it would be cheaper to pay now to prevent a pandemic than to suffer the costs later, and any resources put in place now will be negligible compared the possible economic loss in the event of a pandemic.

In their efforts Turkish authorities have culled more than a million birds in the past two weeks to try to contain the outbreak there, and the Agriculture Ministry has imposed a nationwide ban on the transit of poultry.

Recep Akdag the Turkish Health Minister has strongly rejected any criticism that the government failed to react quickly enough to the outbreak, which first hit poultry in western Turkey in October.

He says if the country had not been prepared for the epidemic the health system would have collapsed.

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