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Human bird flu vaccine nearly ready

Scientists are just weeks away from designing a human vaccine against the deadly Asian bird flu that has killed 22 people and will take longer and more money to stamp out than previously thought, U.N. experts said on Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

Scientists are just weeks away from designing a human vaccine against the deadly Asian bird flu that has killed 22 people and will take longer and more money to stamp out than previously thought, U.N. experts said on Thursday.

“Our laboratories are working actively on designing a new vaccine. We hope that in a few weeks the design phase will have been completed,” Bjorn Melgaard, the WHO representative in Thailand, told Reuters at an international meeting in Bangkok.

Officials from 23 Asia-Pacific countries, U.N. bodies and donors kicked off the three-day emergency meeting with urgent pleas to intensify the fight against the disease.

The virulent H5N1 avian influenza virus has hit seven Asian countries and killed 15 Vietnamese and seven Thais -- fuelling fears it could acquire the ability to easily infect humans, who have no immunity.

That has not happened, but Melgaard told the meeting “the conditions in affected countries and elsewhere are ripe for the emergence of just such a pandemic strain of the influenza virus.”

“A vaccine could be available shortly for vaccine manufacturers to begin small-scale production, so that safety and efficiency studies can be conducted,” he said.

It could be another three to six months before a commercial version of the vaccine is widely available.

The virus is proving difficult to stamp out, with new and recurring outbreaks among poultry despite the slaughter of 100 million birds. Japan and Cambodia are the latest countries investigating possible new cases.

“It is clear that the avian flu epidemic is not yet under control,” Melgaard said, noting that it took the United States two years to wipe out an outbreak in the 1990s.

“The threat to human health will last as long as avian influenza persists in the environment,” he said.

Call for aid
The Bangkok meeting will seek to expose weaknesses in the fight against bird flu, with experts already pointing to a lack of resources for animal disease surveillance in the region.

The world animal health body OIE called for a national network of farmers trained in diseases and supervised by veterinarians, saying they must play a bigger role in detection and reporting of the disease.

“The cost of this investment is insignificant compared to the enormous losses linked with” outbreaks, OIE regional representative Teruhide Fujita told the meeting.

Foreign donors at the meeting will come under pressure to help cash-strapped government such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia pay for culling operations and restocking thousands of small farms.

Experts say culling is by far the most effective way to combat the disease, but it can also worsen the plight of poor farmers unless they get help.

In Thailand, the world’s fourth-largest chicken exporter, thousands of small farmers earning $300 a month on average have fallen into massive debt because government compensation does not cover all lost income.

And once this emergency is over, nations will need financial and technical help to overhaul a way of farming that has not changed for centuries and is partly to blame for the crisis.

“This is a call to donors, realising that the fight against bird flu will take longer than we thought, and it will be enormously costly,” said He Changchui, Assistant Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation.