Bird flu experts gather in Mali to raise billions to fight deadly virus

An estimated US$1.5 billion (Ђ1.1 billion) will be needed over the next several years to fight a deadly strain of bird flu experts fear could start a human pandemic, the World Bank says.

Nearly a third of the money will have to be channeled into sub-Saharan Africa, where poor health and veterinary infrastructure has left the continent already facing wars and poverty ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. A major bird flu conference opened in Africa Wednesday.

Since ravaging Asia's poultry in late 2003, the H5N1 strain of bird flu has spread to the Middle East and Africa and killed at least 154 people around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Fears remain high the virus could mutate into something easily spread from human to human, though most human cases so far were traced to birds.

"The possibility of a human pandemic hangs over us," the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in a statement prepared for the conference that drew bird flu experts from around the world to the Malian capital, Bamako.

"Failure by any one country to contain the disease could lead to rapid re-infection in many more countries," said Alexander Muller, assistant director-general at FAO. "One weak link can lead to a domino effect, undoing all the good that we have achieved so far. Now is no time for complacency."

FAO said the most vulnerable regions include Africa, eastern Europe and the Caucasus, and Indonesia. Several regions remain particularly vulnerable because of a shortfall in donor funding, the Rome-based agency said. However, the agency said its investment in national and regional plans to prepare for a possible outbreak is paying off in unaffected parts of the world like Latin America and the Caribbean, reports AP.

During the last major donor conference in Beijing in January when the deadly strain of the disease was mostly confined to Asia pledges totaled US$1.9 billion (Ђ1.4 billion).

Since then, governments have donated about US$1.4 billion (Ђ1 billion) to help battle the scourge, but only US$94 million (Ђ70 million) million of that has made its way to Africa.

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