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Indonesia Opens Conference Aimed at Halting Bird Flu

As Indonesia's death toll from avian influenza climbs, concerns are rising about the country's ability to control the virus. The government has convened a meeting of heath experts from around the world to help it fight the disease.

At least 39 people in Indonesia have died of bird flu since 2003 - 28 of them just this year. With the outbreak continuing, Jakarta has turned to international experts for help.

Indonesia has the second-highest number of human cases, 51 of the H5N1 virus. Only Vietnam, with 93 cases and 42 deaths, has more.

But experts are worried because Vietnam has virtually halted human cases this year, not a single one so far, while in Indonesia, the numbers keep rising.

A three-day meeting that began Wednesday in Jakarta is meant to bolster the country's efforts to contain the H5N1 virus.

The conference aims to address criticism from international donors of Indonesia's plans for fighting the disease. The country has appealed to aid organizations and other countries for 900 million dollars to pay for bird vaccines, public education, and mass poultry culling programs. The World Bank recently said it needed to see a detailed plan before it would commit funding.

However, there are some areas where Jakarta is making progress. Paul Gully, a WHO senior adviser at the conference, says Indonesia is providing good surveillance for the disease, and has been able to report outbreaks quickly.

"...There are actions being taken locally in terms of controlling avian influenza poultry, and investigation in humans, but I think everyone would agree a lot more needs to be done," he said.

The H5N1 virus spreads mainly in poultry, most human victims got the disease from handling sick birds. Many experts advocate killing all birds exposed to the virus, even those that are still healthy.

But Indonesia has resisted mass culling because of the cost of compensating the birds' owners, who often depend on their poultry for income or family meals.

Scientists at the Jakarta meeting also will look into possible changes in the virus that would allow it to spread easily from person to person. Experts fear such viral changes could lead to a flu pandemic that could kill millions of people.

Indonesia has seen cases in which the virus may have spread from person to person. The WHO's Gully says, however, it does not appear that the virus has changed significantly.

"If avian influenza continues human cases will continue to occur, and then if the right circumstances exist, then probably human to human cases will again continue to occur," said Gully. "Doesn't necessarily mean that we're in a different pandemic state, or that the virus has changed. It's just a question of if the circumstances are right, then probably it will happen."

The group is scheduled to meet through Friday, and is expected to draft a joint assessment of the country's anti-bird flu measures and a list of recommendations on how the country can strengthen its efforts.