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International Campaign Focuses on Animal Diseases


A new international campaign to control outbreaks of animal diseases has begun with a three-day meeting in Japan. One of the goals is to get earlier and more accurate warnings on diseases, such as bird flu, which could trigger a pandemic in humans.

The world's veterinary officers are warning that trans-border animal health crises - which used to occur every two decades or so - have recently been happening every year.

The frequent and widespread outbreaks of avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease, and West Nile virus have prompted international agencies such as the World Organization for Animal Health and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization to team up with donor nations and farmers to combat the outbreaks.

The first of five regional steering committees - this one for Asia and the Pacific - began its initial meeting in Tokyo.

Bernard Vallat, the director general of the World Organization for Animal Health, says that with diseases such as bird flu posing a potential threat to the whole planet, it is vital to ensure early detection and a rapid response.

"A part of the investment to be done will be to help developing countries to develop surveillance systems, early detection, early response, notification systems," Mr. Vallat says. "The other problem is, in certain cases, countries are not transparent for economical reasons or political reasons."

International health officials at the Tokyo meeting say the Chinese government has become more transparent since being criticized for its initial handling of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in 2003.

They add that Thailand and Vietnam have also become more responsible since being accused of covering up the scale of their bird flu outbreaks last year.

The health officials say that in countries where governments remain unresponsive or unable to make accurate reports, a system has been put in place to get timely information through other channels.

The Chief Veterinary Officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization, Joseph Domenech, says he is worried that vigilance will wane when animal disease outbreaks fade from the headlines.

"The risk is when a crisis is over, even if it is still remaining in an endemic situation, if the big crisis is over, the interest may fall again until the next crisis," Mr. Domenech says.

Delegates at the Tokyo meeting will also choose locations for five regional epidemiology units and the same number of regional diagnostic laboratories.

Organizers say those facilities should allow health officials to better and more quickly detect and respond to outbreaks, which threaten poultry, livestock, and humans.

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