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Bird Flu Conferees Call for Openness in Disease Reporting, Greater Vaccine and Antiviral Capacity

An international bird flu conference has ended in Ottawa, Canada with a commitment to step up work to prevent a possible human pandemic. Health ministers stressed the need for early detection of outbreaks and openness by nations in reporting them.

Health ministers from 30 countries endorsed a broad plan to stop avian influenza at it source. The host for the two-day meeting, Canadian health minister Ujjal Dosanjh declares it a successful session that builds upon the World Health Organization's strategic plan for pandemic preparedness and the U.S. international partnership on avian and pandemic influenza.

"This is another step in the direction of fully and adequately preparing for a potential pandemic flu.," Mr. Dosanjh says.

The text of the final communiqué recognizes that not enough is being done to stave off such a health disaster and calls for corrective measures. The health officials say it is essential to monitor the bird flu situation more closely and accelerate efforts to prevent it from gaining the ability to pass easily between humans.

Canadian officials say a guiding principle all participants agreed to was the need for countries to be open and share immediate information about bird flu outbreaks so they can be contained. A top official with the country's Public Health Agency, David Butler-Jones, says this was the hard lesson learned from the deadly respiratory disease SARS, which China tried to hide but which spread and killed more than 800 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003, 44 of them in Canada.

"One of the lessons from SARS is that trying to hide these things -eventually they break out and it's very, very embarrassing for everyone and serves no one well. So transparency is actually in the interests of governments," Mr. Butler-Jones says.

The health ministers say key to such openness is improving early detection capacity and the exchange of information between animal and public health experts at local, national, and international levels.

Another focus of the communiqué is the central role of U.N. agencies like the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The health leaders call for the U.N. Secretary General to appoint an influenza coordinator.

Because there is no vaccine for the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu spreading throughout the world and limited antiviral medicines, the ministers seek development as soon as possible of mechanisms to increase production capacity.

But U.S. health secretary Michael Leavitt says such low capacity is likely to continue for some time. He notes that drug companies have left the market because of low profits and restoring production cannot occur quickly.

"What the H5N1 virus has provided is a wake up call that we are short and in danger as a result, and the objective is to change," he says.

Mr. Leavitt and his British counterpart spoke of a willingness to consider a Mexican proposal for wealthy nations to help middle income countries improve their vaccine making capacity - not only for bird flu but for all infectious diseases. But there was no mention in the
communiqué of another Mexican proposal that industrial nations should set aside 10 percent of their flu vaccine stockpiles for developing countries.

In two weeks, the World Health Organization will host a larger grouping of health officials to continue working on an international avian flu prevention strategy.