Senior officials from Asia-Pacific countries have approved a regional plan to combat a deadly strain of avian influenza this week at a summit in Vietnam. The 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group hopes the new plan will improve efforts to contain the disease in poultry before it can mutate into a new human flu virus that could potentially kill millions of people and devastate the global economy.
The familiar sound of chickens at a poultry farm in Hoa Quy village in central Vietnam. But this is not a typical Vietnamese farm. Instead of running free in backyards, the 7,000 egg-laying hens are enclosed in pens surrounded by a wire fence. The ground outside is covered with disinfectant powder, and farm workers wear rubber boots and face masks to protect themselves from catching the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus, which has been sweeping from Asia to Europe and Africa, killing millions of poultry and more than a hundred people since 2003.
He Changchui, Asia-Pacific head of the UN Food and Agriculture organization, says more Asian farms need to look like this one if the world hopes to contain H5N1 in domestic poultry.
Limiting human contact with chickens and ducks is key to denying H5N1 or other avian flu strains the chance to adapt to humans and spread easily among people who have no immunity.
This week, officials at a special APEC summit on bird flu approved a plan to try to prevent a human pandemic of influenza, which could kill millions. The plan's goal is to contain the virus in animals by restructuring poor countries' farming techniques. But that, says He, will take money.
"Restructuring this poultry industry is a big challenge, because there are millions of small farmers, backyard producers. It needs investment," said He Changchui.
Vietnam, for example, has said in the next five years it needs $400 million to fight the bird flu by equipping and educating its farmers.
Previous flu pandemics, which emerge about every 40 years, have killed millions of people worldwide. The worst recorded was in 1918, when the so-called Spanish flu virus killed 40 million people. The Spanish flu virus, like H5N1, was originally an avian influenza strain.
Besides farming safety, the APEC plan calls for increased communication among countries in case human clusters of a new flu virus emerges. Health officials estimate that if they can manage to quarantine any new human flu outbreaks within two weeks, they might be able to stop a pandemic in its tracks. If they fail at that, the APEC countries hope to have pre-approved plans in place to keep businesses running and borders open in case millions of people call in sick to work.
But the first line of defense against bird flu lies with the chickens and ducks that, for now, are the main victims of the disease. If the new APEC plan manages to head off a pandemic, chances are it will be the result of concentrating efforts down on the farm.