Hanoi hosts international conference on avian flue
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the world is coming close to a deadly pandemic. Experts and poultry farmers criticise Hanoi's policies.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – International animal health experts and health officers are meeting in Vietnam in an UN-sponsored international conference to prepare emergency plans for controlling the avian influenza virus that has killed 13 people in the Asian country since re-emerging in December.

Speaking on day one of the three-day meeting in Hanoi , Dr. Shigeru Omi, WHO's Western Pacific regional director, warned that "the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic".

Health agencies around the world, he said, "had to better coordinate their fight against the virus".

So far there have 55 documented cases in Asia in which the avian flu was transmitted from birds to humans.

Should the incidence of animal-to-human transmission increase, the impact worldwide will be enormous, worse than SARS.

According to Hans Troedsson, a WHO representative in Vietnam, the H5N1 virus has a 70 per cent mortality rate, higher than the Ebola virus.

WHO officials say the bird flu was identified last year in 10 countries and is currently circulating in four: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, but currently there is no vaccine that could stop it.

Since the virus is airborne, it could travel around the world in less than six to eight months," said Dr. Klaus Stohr, from the WHO's global influenza program.

The danger should push the world to act by investing the necessary resources to study the virus and quickly develop possible vaccines.

The conference also discussed the measures of prevention taken by affected countries. Dr Samuel Jutzi, of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation, said that Vietnam's decision to destroy the entire poultry stock and shut down small farming operation was not entirely appropriate.

According to Dr Jutzi, if it is true that large operations have the means and know-how to enforce stricter controls and thus can reduce the risk of contagion, it is however socially and economically dangerous to shut down smaller farmers, who risk losing their livelihood, if not their life.

The Vietnamese government has proposed poultry farmers switch to cattle raising or fishing; however, cattle is more capital intensive and bank loans are hard to get.

For Tran Hung Long, a poultry farmer on Ho Chi Min City's west side, the government's decision is a disaster.

"I feel like I am in a prison," he said. "I raised chickens for 50 years and now, all of a sudden, I am told that I must give it up. Of course, I must obey the policies of the government, but I hope it doesn't treat every farmer like me".

Mr Tran's son also said that "public health is very important. But I think this decision was made because the authorities are scared that fear will shut down the country's tourism industry".