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Avian Flu High On World Health Assembly Agenda

The issue of sharing research data on avian influenza is shaping up to be the most controversial and potentially damaging item on this year's agenda of the World Health Assembly. The annual assembly of 193 governments, which opens in Geneva on Monday, will debate ways to tackle a possible bird flu pandemic. Other global health problems will also be under review. Lisa Schlein has more for VOA.

The World Health Organization has been working feverishly to get nations to prepare for a potential avian flu pandemic that could kill millions of people. Cooperation among nations to try to ward off this global danger is increasing.

But, a dispute over the sharing of bird flu virus samples threatens to prevent many of these advances. Indonesia is one of the worst affected countries. WHO spokesman Ian Simpson says there is great concern about that country's reluctance to share its data.

"It is extremely important that all governments share virus samples in order that it is possible for the world to really track the development of avian influenza and track the emergence of a pandemic influenza strain," said Ian Simpson. "So, this is a really important global public good and we hope that there will be agreement at this World Health Assembly to really stick to the global agreement that there is on sharing samples and that we can move on."

Seventy five people have died from the H5N1 bird flu virus in Indonesia. The international practice of openly sharing of virus samples from humans is seen as important for vaccine research.

The Indonesian government stopped sharing virus samples in December fearing pharmaceutical companies would develop vaccines that would be too costly for poor countries. In March, Indonesia agreed to share the samples with WHO. But, so far none have been sent.

Simpson says another matter linked to this hot-button issue is the relationship between public health and Intellectual property. He says a strong division exists between those who believe promoting public health is paramount and those who consider the protection of intellectual property rights to be more important.

"As WHO, we see the value of both of those things," he said. "We know that it is important for people to get access to drugs at prices they can afford. But, we also know that unless intellectual property is protected, then we will not see the investment in the development of future tools, which we will need. So, we have to find a way to satisfy both the concerns of intellectual property and the concerns of public health.

Health ministers at the assembly will also discuss the progress being made toward polio eradication. WHO is expected to ask for more money to finish the job in the four remaining polio endemic countries.

Discussions will take place on other problems such as cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis control, and HIV/AIDS. WHO also will ask the assembly to approve a 15 percent increase in its two-year global budget. It will request $4.2 billion for 2008 and 2009.