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Bird Flu Conference Urges $100 Million for Research

  • Kay Johnson

Delegates at a global conference on avian influenza have called for at least $100 million in new funding to fight the disease before it has a chance to mutate into a human strain. The call came as Vietnam reported two new possible cases of bird flu in humans.

The message at the closing session of a global conference on bird flu was clear: if the world wants to stop the deadly H5N1 strain from turning into a disastrous human pandemic, it must act quickly to stop the virus in poultry.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, says H5N1 is endemic among poultry in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and China, and will not be stamped out quickly.

So the best chance of preventing more human deaths is to contain the virus in poultry farms with better control and monitoring.

FAO official Samuel Jutzi stresses that H5N1 could turn into a virulent human strain at any time.

"The threat is real and the potential is very high," he said. "The longer the virus circulates the way it does in poultry production systems and in ducks, the higher is the probability of exposure of humans and if we are indeed unlucky and have human influenza at the same time, there is increased likelihood of reassortment and therefore of the generation of pandemic."

Almost all the humans who have contracted bird flu were found to have been in close contact with chickens.

So the FAO and the World Health Organization used the conference here in Ho Chi Minh City to call on the international community to help. They asked for $100 million to restructure farms and poultry markets so that fewer humans come in contact with the virus.

Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization's Asia director, says that sounding the alarm now is not meant to generate panic, and he denies suggestions that the scale of the problem might be exaggerated.

"In my view, international organizations like us, it is our moral obligation to share this kind of information with the general public," he said.

As if to emphasize the potential toll of the virus, Vietnam confirmed that another patient has tested positive for H5N1. The 21-year-old man's teenage sister is being tested for the virus.

Vietnam has suffered more H5N1 cases than any other country, with 13 people killed by the disease since December. A total of 45 people from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have died from the H5N1 strain in little more than a year.

Scientists fear the number of human cases could rocket if the virus is allowed further contact with humans, which could allow it to mutate to spread easily from person-to-person.

Vietnam and the United States are both racing to develop human vaccines for H5N1, but until those vaccines are ready, officials stress that animal control is the only way to stop the disease in its tracks.