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Scientists to Review Fight Against Bird Flu at Mali Conference


Representatives from more than 100 countries are preparing to attend the fourth international conference on avian influenza, Wednesday in Bamako, Mali. Scientists fear that the rapid spread of this highly contagious virus, combined with the lack of preparation in vulnerable countries, can lead to added economic and human losses. Phuong Tran reports from Dakar.

The participants will include donors, health professionals and representatives from the livestock industry. They will discuss ways to contain the highly contagious H5N1 virus, also known as bird flu.

A conference report prepared by the World Bank says that some of the most rapid promulgation in the past year has happened in Africa, where several countries have reported the avian flu in both poultry and humans.

This report suggests Africa needs close to a half billion dollars to fight the avian flu. A veterinary consultant to the conference, Faouzi Kechrid, explains Africa's vulnerability.

Kechrid believes that the virus poses a big problem for Africa, given the nature of cattle breeding, the lack of well-developed veterinarian services and what he says is the lack of proper information for people working on non-commercial family farms.

Alex Thiermann is president of the standards committee at the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health. The committee develops the World Trade Organization's standards for the trade of animals and animal products. Thiermann's concern is that the most vulnerable countries for the spread of avian flu are also the ones that do not have the tools to control the virus.

"The concern that we have is countries that do not have the necessary infrastructure to do an early detection, take rapid action and notify international authorities," he said. " In Africa, we have problems because either the message does not get to the farmer or the message gets to the farmer and the farmer is afraid to report it, because he or she may lose the poultry, and [they think] it may be better to move them to a neighboring village or a neighboring country."

Thiermann and Kechrid identify two conditions for a successful containment strategy. First, Thiermann points to Southeast Asia, where there was an outbreak of the virus in poultry in 2003. He thinks this region's strong veterinary infrastructure helped contain the virus.

Second, Kechrid explains how a compensation system can help encourage farmers to take early action.

Kechrid explains that the ideal situation would be that when a farmer suspects an animal of carrying the virus, he kills it. But this can seriously damage the farm's earnings. Kechrid says that is why a compensation system is needed to ease farmers' losses from killing poultry.

Since 2003, the World Bank reports that avian influenza has killed or forced the killing of 250 million poultry birds, which translates to direct economic losses for people connected to the livestock industry. According to the World Health Organization, most cases have occurred in rural households, where small flocks of poultry are kept.

The World Bank conference report says the international community needs to raise an additional $1.5 billion to control the virus. Some of this money would go to a compensation system for farmers.

Thiermann of the World Organization for Animal Health says that a similar compensation system for livestock farmers in Thailand and Vietnam contributed toward those countries' success in controlling the spread of avian flu.

Thiermann's focus goes beyond the conference, to long-term structural change.

"Tomorrow, we are going to be fighting another emerging disease. We cannot target just avian flu. We need to strengthen each country's infrastructure. Otherwise, not only those countries, but the rest of the world is going to be at risk for these new emerging diseases."

According to the World Health Organization, since the discovery of the virus in a human in 1997, there have been close to 250 laboratory confirmed human cases of avian flu, leading to more than 150 deaths. Health experts have been monitoring the H5N1 strain for almost eight years, aware that there is a chance the virus can cross over to humans and spread rapidly.