Southeast Asia's ministers unite to fight against bird flu

Southeast Asia's agriculture ministers endorsed a regional plan Friday to combat bird flu and pledged to cooperate with international agencies in stamping out the menace, a move they hope will win enough international aid to halt the disease before it becomes a catastrophic epidemic with the potential to kill millions of people globally.

The ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a statement that "the highly pathogenic avian influenza," which has ravaged poultry populations in large swaths of Asia and killed dozens of people, requires "an all-out coordinated regional effort."

The meeting in the Philippines ended with the ASEAN ministers' joint statement endorsing a regional plan for control and eradication of bird flu over three years from 2006 and directing a new task force to urgently formulate "a detailed action plan for implementation and proceed to identify potential sources of funding."

The plan covers eight strategic areas including a disease surveillance and alert system, vaccination, improving diagnostic capability and establishing disease-free zones.

The regional framework dovetails with a three-year plan drafted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health or OIE and World Health Organization in May, to be presented to international donors in December for implementation early next year.

ASEAN Deputy Secretary General Wilfrido Villacorta said given the gravity of the problem "we are confident that we shall continue to have the support of our dialogue partners."

The ASEAN animal health trust fund formally established during the meeting "gives the signal to potential donors that ASEAN member countries are serious about eradicating the avian flu as well as other diseases that are facing the region," he added.

Two million dollars have been pledged for the fund, which is separate from a regional fund for bird flu that ASEAN hopes to have, officials said.

"It's important that we have the political commitment of the region so we can effectively invite the donors to back the program (on bird flu)," said Subhash Mozaria, FAO chief technical adviser said in a presentation Thursday before ASEAN agriculture ministers.

The two-day ministerial meeting comes on the heels of an urgent warning from a U.N. health official about the disease's potential to threaten human life.

Dr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization said Thursday that political leaders must take immediate steps to prevent a human flu pandemic, which could strike if the bird virus mutates into a strain that is both deadly to humans and easily spread among people


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