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Last Updated: Monday, 4 July, 2005, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
Bird flu experts warn of pandemic
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

A veterinary personnel vaccinates a chicken at Lendah village in Kulon Progo-Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 27 January 2005
Bird flu has claimed 55 lives in China, Vietnam and Thailand
Scientists meeting in Malaysia have warned the world has reached a tipping point in the fight against bird flu.

They are calling on rich nations to put resources into countries fighting the disease, or risk a global flu pandemic.

But some delegates say the fight against bird flu is being hampered by secrecy in some affected countries.

They say they are worried by a lack of information from Laos and Burma, while others called on China to be more open about the situation there.

The Kuala Lumpur conference's focus is protecting farm and market workers, and preparing medics and vets for an outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) wants a strategy to prevent viruses leaping from animals to humans, and creating a hybrid flu germ.

QUICK GUIDE

Scientists insist that bird flu can still be prevented from turning into a virus that spreads among people.

But press them a little and it is clear that they are desperately worried the battle is being lost.

Funding needed

According to the WHO, East Asian countries are doing their best to contain outbreaks among poultry and wild bird populations.

But without funding and resources from the West, it says they have not got a hope.

We can't put a figure on this, but Sars in fact will be dwarfed by a flu pandemic if one happens
Peter Cordingley, WHO

WHO regional spokesman Peter Cordingley said rich nations appeared complacent, and warned that the impact of a human flu pandemic would be on a far greater scale than the Sars outbreak two years ago.

"We don't know what the fatalities will be," he said. "We can expect it to be very high.

"There will be enormous economic dislocation. Stock markets will close, international travel and trade will be limited.

"We can't put a figure on this, but Sars in fact will be dwarfed by a flu pandemic if one happens."

Better hygiene

Joseph Domenech, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation's chief vet, wants China to properly investigate the recent deaths of 6,000 birds in Quinhai Province.

It is feared survivors could carry the virus south to India and Pakistan when they migrate.

He also asked China to be open about the misuse of the human anti-viral drug amantadine to counter bird flu, amid worries that it will become useless if the virus spreads to people.

But if it is hard getting information from China, Laos and Burma might as well be on the dark side of the moon, according to Mr Cordingley.

This meeting brings together delegates from the WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

They are focussing on high-risk areas like the backyard farms, where most of Asia's food is produced and where people and animals live side-by-side.

Other hotspots include wet markets, where birds are stored live for shoppers.

Both provide ideal conditions for bird flu to spread and pass to humans.

Experts hope that by encouraging better hygiene and safer working practices, it may be possible to stop some animal viruses jumping the species barrier.

So far bird flu is known to have claimed 55 lives in China, Vietnam and Thailand.


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