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US Backs Lao Efforts to Fight Bird Flu with $3.4 Million Grant

The United States has joined other international donors to help Laos prepare for a possible outbreak of avian flu. Washington's $3.4 million contribution was announced as top-ranking U.S. and U.N. health officials tour countries in the region that are particularly vulnerable to bird flu.

The U.S. grant is aimed at helping Laos develop diagnostic laboratories, and improve its responses and reporting of any outbreak of bird flu.

The grant was announced in Vientiane Thursday by Michael Leavitt, the U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services, and Laos Health Minister Ponmek Dalajoy.

Mr. Leavitt is traveling through Southeast Asia with the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Jong Woo Lee, and officials of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies. The group's aim is to highlight the danger of a global bird flu pandemic, and to present the most vulnerable countries in the region with resources to fight the disease.

Since late 2003, the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus has killed more than 60 people in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. So far, most or all of the victims have caught the disease by handling diseased birds. But health experts fear the virus will mutate into a form that is easily spread from human to human, which could set off a worldwide outbreak and threaten the lives of millions.

Laos, a tiny and impoverished country, has already received aid against bird flu from Japan and France, along with the WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO.

The FAO representative in Laos, Leena Kirjavainen, said that while the country has had no reported cases of bird flu among poultry flocks since early 2004, a lot of work remains to prepare for a possible outbreak.

"We have to do a lot of work on capacity building in general, both human resources and technical capacity, and we have to strengthen reporting system and then also the diagnosis and research capacity within the animal health centers," she explained.

The FAO has been conducting public awareness campaigns with posters, handbooks and radio programs, explaining the disease and the correct handling of samples and dead birds.

Training has also focused on livestock officers in all provinces and districts. But Mrs. Kirjavainen says the community-based surveillance system needs to be improved.

Mr. Leavitt and his group visited Thailand and Cambodia earlier in the week, and flew on to Vietnam late Thursday, the final stage of the tour.