Bird flu remains dangerous, preparations needed - UN meeting
The bird flu virus remains as dangerous as ever and nations must do more to prepare for a pandemic among humans, United Nations agencies said at a conference on the deadly disease.
Although the avian influenza virus has not mutated to become easily spread among people, the risk of a pandemic is not receding, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) western Pacific regional director.
"(The virus) remains as unstable, unpredictable and versatile as ever. Judging by its performance to date we need to be on constant alert for surprises," he said in an opening address to the three-day meeting.
The H5N1 virus "has so far resisted all attempts to dislodge it from the environment and remains endemic across large parts of the region. It has now infected more than 100 people, killing more than half of them," he said.
Omi said that in a sign of its tenacity, the virus reappeared in China last month, killing 6,000 migratory birds. And Indonesia has reported what is believed to be its first human victim, although tests are inconclusive.
"(In Vietnam) there have been roughly twice as many human cases this year as last year.... In our view, Vietnam is now chronically infected."
Despite the dangers, Omi said there was time to prevent further spread of the disease. "But countries must also get ready for the worst. This means they must speed up their work on pandemic preparedness."
The WHO director noted that 44 human cases of bird flu were reported in Asia in the whole of 2004, but already this year 64 cases had emerged.
"We are now at the tipping point where we need an all out war on the virus," he said, calling for renewed efforts to research and control the disease.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) chief veterinary officer Joseph Domenech said bird flu must be combated at the source, and called on governments to step up animal vaccination programs.
"In some countries ... such as in Vietnam, massive vaccination could be the only way to first reduce infection in poultry, which will further reduce human exposure and infection," he said.
Domenech noted "with considerable relief" new findings from Vietnam that indicated there was no evidence the virus had mutated, and that it was not as widely spread among humans as first thought.
"But there is also no reason for complacency," he said. "The virus continues to circulate in poultry and wild birds and requires highest attention. Many questions remain unanswered and more research and major investments for national and regional control operations are required."
He also called on China to be more transparent on its efforts to control the spread of the virus, and curb the reported use by Chinese farmers of human antiviral drugs to treat poultry, which he said would create resistance.
"We are asking the Chinese authorities to be more transparent on that and to give more details on how it was registered, how it was authorised," he said of the human antiviral drug amantadine.
Representatives from the WHO, the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) also urged governments to plough more resources into combating the disease.
"The money spent on the strengthening of veterinary services is insignificant compared to the enormous economic or other losses sustained as a result of animal disease outbreaks and possible human pandemics," OIE Asia Pacific representative Teruhide Fujita said.
The closed-door meeting of some 60 health officials, scientists and legal experts will focus on improving the way live animals are raised and sold in Asia, to minimise the risk of human infection.
A total of 55 people have died from bird flu in Asia, including 39 in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four in Cambodia, since the outbreak began in 2003.