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Southeast Asian Farm Ministers Agree On Massive Effort to Fight Bird Flu

Southeast Asian agriculture ministers have agreed to a major new plan to combat bird flu, which has killed more than 60 people in four Asian countries since late 2003 and potentially threatens tens of millions of people worldwide.

Ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said Friday that fighting avian flu requires an "all-out coordinated regional effort," and they agreed to create a regional fund to fight it and other animal diseases.

Meeting south of Manila, the ministers expressed support for a United Nations plan to battle the disease, with different countries in the region taking on different responsibilities.

The United Nations is due to present the plan to international donors in December, in hopes of attracting the estimated $150 million needed to tackle the threat of a bird flu pandemic.

Since 2003, the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia, and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of birds. Officials say the virus has now become endemic in bird populations in the region.

Peter Cordingly, the Western Pacific regional spokesman for the World Health Organization, welcomed the renewed commitment by Southeast Asian governments. He says preventive measures have to be taken on the farm, where the virus originates, before it gets into the general human population.

"Wherever this virus exists across the region, it has to be fought back in the farm yards," he said. "We can't fight it on the public health front, it will be an endless task. We have to go to where the virus starts, which is where chickens and ducks and pigs are raised together."

So far, most or all of the human deaths have resulted from people handling infected poultry. What worries officials is that the H5NI virus could mutate into a form that passes easily and rapidly from human to human - setting off a worldwide outbreak.

Doctor David Nabarro, the new head of the WHO task force on bird flu, warned Thursday that a new flu pandemic could come any time and could kill up to 150 million people worldwide, unless officials act now to control the outbreak in Asia.

The plan announced by the ASEAN ministers Friday aims to eradicate the virus from the region within three years.