U.N. agencies and livestock experts have released a "blueprint" for the fight to combat the bird flu virus in Asia before it can trigger a global influenza pandemic. The plan calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in spending to raise public awareness, and the restructuring of dangerous farm practices.
Recommendations call for such changes as segregating animal species on farms, and minimizing contact between animals and humans. The planners also said farmers should be adequately compensated for flocks slaughtered due to disease, to ensure that bird flu outbreaks are reported promptly.
U.N. health officials released the details at the end of the three-day conference in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The conference brought together about 60 scientists and representatives of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health.
Joseph Domenech, the FAO's chief veterinary officer, called for an urgent change in farming practices that are considered dangerous to humans, such as the slaughter of animals in unsanitary conditions.
The Western Pacific spokesman for the WHO, Peter Cordingley, said such measures were vital to turn back the threat of a pandemic. "We are at a tipping point. If we do not do anything, the situation will worsen to the point that inevitably - we do not know when - this virus will develop into a pandemic strain," he said.
The danger comes from a strain of the avian flu virus known as H5N1. The virus has infected 108 people in Asia, killing 39 in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand, and four in Cambodia. Tens of millions of chickens, ducks, and wild birds have died or been slaughtered after becoming infected with the virus.
Most or all of the human cases have been caused by the handling of infected poultry. Health experts are worried that the virus could mutate into a form that can pass easily from human to human, possibly leading to a deadly global outbreak.
Mr. Cordingley said that while there was a "high level of concern and commitment" across Asia, much more needs to be done to educate farmers and other handlers of live poultry. "We still see inappropriate behavior by members of the public - which suggests to us that a lot more money, time and energy needs to be spent on educating the people about inappropriate practices in a time of an emerging disease," he said.
The next major step will be to call on donor countries to provide more than $100 million during the next three years, with $54 million allocated to Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos. The participants said a further $150 million will be required to make the plan successful.