Health ministers from around the world convene in Ottawa later Monday for a two-day meeting to coordinate a global response to the potentially deadly bird flu virus. The meeting is the first international gathering to try to coordinate a global response to bird flu.

The conference brings together health ministers and senior officials from 29 countries and the heads of key international agencies.

Canadian health officials say it will contribute to various international initiatives under way to reduce the bird flu risk, like the World Health Organization's strategic plan for pandemic preparedness and the U.S. international partnership on avian and pandemic influenza.

Bird flu is heading westward from its East Asian origins, largely because of the migration of infected fowl. So far, there have been no reported cases of the disease in humans outside of that region. But the Canadian officials say the increasing exposure among birds boosts the chance that the virus will become more efficient at infecting people and spread among them. They point out that their experience with SARS, which hit Toronto in 2003 and temporarily devastated the city's tourism industry, makes them realize the importance of working beyond their borders.

SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, killed 44 people in Toronto and sickened hundreds.

Canadian officials say the Ottawa meeting is intended to help affected nations strengthen their means of early disease detection and response to a potential avian flu pandemic.

Also on the ministers' agenda are issues relating to the development and distribution of an avian flu vaccine and antiviral medicines.

Among the international agencies represented will be the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The Canadian organizers say this grouping is intended to improve the collaboration between the animal and public health sectors in the fight against bird flu.