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Health experts unveil $1 billion bird flu plan

Health experts unveiled a $1 billion plan to halt the spread of bird flu as Indonesia said initial tests showed the virus had killed a 16-year-old girl.
/ Source: Reuters

Health experts unveiled a $1 billion plan on Wednesday to halt the spread of bird flu while Indonesia said initial tests showed the virus had killed a 16-year-old girl.

The strategy is aimed at rooting out bird flu among poultry and stopping it from spawning an influenza pandemic which could kill millions of people around the globe.

“What is important to me is there has been consensus and clarity, (and) much better coordination. We’ll be much quicker to control avian influenza as a result,” David Nabarro, the U.N.’s chief bird flu coordinator, told reporters.

“If the pandemic starts, there’s a pretty good chance it will be smaller as a result of the work we’ve done in the past three days than it would have been otherwise,” he said after the meeting at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The urgency was underlined after Indonesia reported what it confirmed would be the 65th death blamed on the H5N1 bird flu virus since late 2003.

“The test result showed positive, but we’re still waiting for confirmation from Hong Kong,” Hariadi Wibisono, a senior official at the health ministry, told Reuters.

The victim lived in an East Jakarta suburb near a bird market and had chickens and pet birds in her house. However, no evidence of contact with an infected bird has been established.

The H5N1 virus is endemic in poultry across Asia. It has been found in birds in eastern Europe and there are fears migrating flocks could take it to the Middle East and Africa.

The virus remains hard for humans to catch. But scientists say that, like all influenza viruses, it is steadily mutating and could acquire the genetic changes that make it easy to pass among humans.

Funding needed
WHO chief Lee Jong-wook said the strategy aimed to boost early warning systems, strengthen veterinary services, make it easier for rich and poor nations alike to get antiviral drugs and step up research into pandemic vaccines.

“Investments are urgently needed at the national level, potentially reaching $1 billion over the next three years” he said.

The Asian Development Bank also made an extra $300 million available to fight bird flu in worst-hit countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It had already pledged $170 million.

Many poor Asian nations lack adequate surveillance and reporting mechanisms and cannot compensate farmers for poultry culls. Africa, which many experts believe will be the next front line in the fight against bird flu, faces similar problems.

Fears in China
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called on the nation to intensify efforts to fight bird flu and said China was facing a “very serious situation”, Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday as he made an inspection tour of an affected province.

“Bird flu has not been totally controlled in China and the danger of its spread still exists in some areas,” Wen said.

An outbreak among poultry in the northeast is China’s fourth this month and its largest. Xinhua said the virus had spread to another three townships in the area and that 10 million poultry there had been slaughtered.

Swiss drug maker Roche AG said it had agreed to provide the raw ingredient to allow Vietnam to produce its antiviral medicine Tamiflu, one of the best defences against bird flu in humans. Forty-two people have died from bird flu in Vietnam.

Besides the human toll, experts are assessing the likely economic hit from a pandemic.

A pandemic could curb world energy demand as people cut back on business and tourist travel, Goldman Sachs said in a report.

“Should the flu mutate into a true global pandemic, the economic implications would be profound, potentially reducing energy demand by well over one million barrels per day,” the U.S. investment bank said.

World oil use is about 85 million barrels per day, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.