Experts discuss how to stamp out bird flu in Asia

Greater measures must be taken to stamp out bird flu in Asian flocks, a senior U.N. official said, as health ministers from around the world met in Canada to discuss how to tackle a possible pandemic if a deadly strain of the virus mutates and becomes easily transmitted between humans.

Health experts met Monday in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, to review European readiness for a possible human flu pandemic after the H5N1 bird flu strain spread from Asia to Russia, Turkey and Romania.

Dr. Jacques Diouf, head of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, said in Canada on Monday that countries must not overlook the goal of controlling bird flu in Southeast Asia while being preoccupied with the development of antiviral drugs for humans. "As the world takes prudent measures to prepare for a major human pandemic, greater measures must be taken to stop this disease, in its tracks, at its source, in animals," Diouf said. "This is very possible. It can be done."

He said it would take more money to slow the spread of the H5N1 virus, which is endemic in parts of Asia. He said 140 million chickens and ducks had been culled in Southeast Asia, costing US$10 billion (Ђ8.4 billion) and devastating rural communities.

In Southeast Asia, the virus has killed more than 60 people since 2003, mostly poultry farmers and their relatives in Vietnam and Thailand.

Diouf suggested it would take US$1 billion (Ђ800 million) to make a dent in the spread of bird flu. However, only US$25 million (21 million) has been pledged, he said.

Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization's director for the Western Pacific region, told the meeting in Denmark that Europeans had a "golden opportunity" to learn from the successes and failures of efforts to contain the virus in Asia.

"Asia remains ground zero in the war on avian flu and still represents the most serious risk to global public health," Omi told reporters.

Ben Duncan, spokesman for the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said the key message from Asia was "to stop the virus from being rooted in poultry."

Stamping out outbreaks in birds is crucial because it reduces the opportunities for the virus to mutate, health experts say.

"The countries of Europe have an excellent chance to contain the virus," said Gudjon Magnusson, a WHO Europe official. "We don't have any human cases yet."

In India, authorities said Monday they are considering whether to invoke a special law which would allow its drug manufacturers to copy the anti-bird flu drug Tamiflu without getting a license from Roche of Switzerland, which holds the patent.

The World Trade Organization decided in 2003 to allow governments to override patents during national health crises, but no member state has since invoked the clause, reports the AP. I.L.

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