Representatives from more than 80 countries and international organizations convened in Washington Thursday for a two-day conference aimed at generating a world-wide political consensus to fight avian flu. Bush administration officials said transparency and quick reporting of outbreaks are the keys to preventing, or at least minimizing the effects, of a possible flu pandemic.
Efforts to head off a widespread avian flu outbreak among humans are already being conducted by the World Health Organization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and other specialized agencies.
The conference here convened by the Bush administration is intended to elevate the issue on the global political agenda, and assure an effective response to a potential pandemic.
President Bush announced what's being called the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza at the United Nations world summit last month.
The first plenary meeting of the partnership opened late Thursday at the U.S. Academy of Sciences with welcoming addresses by senior administration officials including Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt.
Mr. Leavitt said even if the avian flu virus -- designated by scientists as H-Five-N-One - does not produce a pandemic among humans, there will inevitably be another, and the cooperation being established among countries now will not go to waste:
"Let us remember our objective is not simply to defeat H-Five-N-One. It is to be prepared for whatever comes. Because at some point we will most certainly have to use our preparation," he said.
The meeting has drawn officials from countries around the world including Southeast Asian nations where avian flu, though largely limited to poultry and wild-bird populations, has already caused an estimated ten billion dollars in economic losses.
Senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters said the goal of the meetings here is to coordinate efforts among affected countries and donor nations, to increase the transparency and timeliness of disease reporting, and develop a collective capacity to identify and respond to a pandemic.
Kent Hill, Assistant Administrator for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S.A.I.D., said his agency has already designated the fight against avian flu its number-one priority.
Mr. Hill said that while many scientists believe that a human pandemic, perhaps killing millions of people, if not a question of if, but when, governments must guard against despair, because he said, everything they do now can limit the consequences of an outbreak:
"We must understand that everything we do, every ounce of our energy, every bids of our resources that we put into this, will have an output, and the output will be in saved lives. Even if there is a pandemic, what we do today, what we do in the next weeks or months, can impact how large the pandemic is and how grave the consequences are," he said.
Mr. Hill said no country, no matter how poor it is, is deprived of the possibility of making the right decision, in terms of being transparent about the presence of avian flu and applying the necessary political will to deal with it.
The conference moves to the State Department Friday for plenary meetings and workshops and another full-scale session is expected to be held in the coming weeks.
Secretary Leavitt and the State Department's Undersecretary for International Affairs Paula Dobriansky, meanwhile, will visit affected Asian countries next week.