Bird Flu Alarm

2006-03-22-Poor nations need help fighting bird flu

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-03-22-Poor nations need help fighting bird flu

Australia is one of a relatively small number of nations capable of the early detection and quick response needed to contain rapidly spreading bird flu, says a leading health official.

Combating the spread of the H5N1 avian influenza, which has killed 103 people worldwide since it reemerged in 2003, has become critical to governments across the globe because experts fear it could become a pandemic that could kill millions and cause catastrophic economic damage.

"Developed countries are in position to practice satisfactory early detection and rapid response. Worldwide, only 20 to 30 countries are able to do that currently," said Dr. Bernard Vallat, director-general of the World Organisation for Animal Health said.

"All the others, 140 or more, need help."

Rich countries need to help poorer ones with detection programs and compensation for farmers to prevent the global spread of "zoonoses," diseases that can spread from animals to humans, Vallat said at the International Conference of Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.

At a January conference in Beijing, governments and organisations pledged $US1.9 billion ($A2.64 billion) for a global "rapid containment" program for bird flu.

The World Health Organisation said bird flu killed five young people in Azerbaijan, taking the global death toll to 103 since it reemerged in late 2003. The virus has spread with alarming speed in recent weeks, pushing into Europe and Africa.

The United States said this week it expected to see its first cases of bird flu this year.

Scientists say the virus is mutating and could evolve into a form that would pass easily from human to human, potentially causing a pandemic that could kill millions because people would have no immunity.

The issue of ways to contain it has been a primary topic of debate between hundreds of health experts from some 80 nations gathered in Atlanta this week for the infectious disease conference.

Vallat named European Union nations, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada as having the ability to respond quickly to an outbreak of bird flu or another threatening virus.

Experts say outbreaks can be contained by early detection and a quick response. US wildlife officials, for example, are monitoring Pacific bird migration routes for signs of bird flu with the hope of tracking infected birds and giving advance warning to US poultry producers.

But in many poor countries, it is nearly impossible to know what diseases are circulating because of poor surveillance programs.

"There are parts of Africa without any surveillance," Vallat said.

"Diseases can circulate for weeks in some parts of Africa without being known by the authorities in the capital."

One of the keys to early detection is a plan to compensate farmers if governments decide to destroy infected flocks.

Outbreaks of H5N1 have forced the destruction of more than 200 million birds.

But in poor countries, farmers may be reluctant to report mysterious deaths in their flocks because they are uncertain whether they will be paid for the lost birds.

Understanding Avian Influenza