The United States and Canada have pledged to support global cooperation to prevent the avian flu outbreak from becoming a human pandemic. Canada's prime minister, who is hosting a ministerial conference on the disease, says global collaboration is the only hope for containing it.
As the health officials from 30 countries met at the Canadian foreign ministry, visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rice told reporters she was briefed on the conference and spoke about avian flu with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew.
"We vowed we will do everything we can to support a program that gets governments to take this issue very seriously and to work both internally and externally on what could be a very damaging pandemic," said Ms. Rice.
Earlier in the day, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin emphasized to the health ministers the importance of international cooperation to prevent the disease from spreading among people. He says it is vital because the countries where avian flu outbreaks are most likely to occur are those that have the least ability to respond by themselves with the scientific and social tools necessary to contain the virus.
"Within our countries and among our countries, each of these efforts will require cooperation and coordination on a scale that is virtually unprecedented. The consequences of a world that is unprepared are simply unacceptable," said Mr. Martin.
Prime Minister Martin says it is important to stop the disease at its source, the birds. The best way of doing this is killing infected fowl. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 140 million birds have been culled for this purpose. But the Canadian leader acknowledges that this practice might fail to help contain the virus because many bird farmers are too unwilling to jeopardize their livelihood by reducing their flocks. Officials from international agencies at the conference have spoken of compensating them for their losses to encourage them to report cases of avian flu.
One of these officials, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jacques Diouf, says not doing this or carrying out other practices to stem the disease could devastate rural communities already affected by it.
"There are proven practices for these, such as isolating poultry, good farm hygiene, use of effective vaccines, close monitoring, and quick culling when necessary. These practices work and there are success stories in many countries," he said.
The health ministers are discussing these and other matters, including vaccine and antiviral medicine development and distribution, improving collaboration between the animal and public health sectors and building the technical capacity to assess the findings.
Nigerian Health Minister Helen Essuene says the talks have proven useful.
"Already, the health care system is loaded with a lot of problems. So we will leave this conference more focused on exactly what we need to do," she explained.
The international dialog continues in two weeks in Geneva, where the World Health Organization (WHO) and other U.N. agencies meet with country representatives to discuss local, regional and international preparation for a potential bird flu pandemic.