Asian battleground key to beating bird flu virus
For World Health Organisation, the virus appeared in South-East Asia and it is here that the risk of pandemic is the greatest. International aid is necessary to prevent it.

Manila (AsiaNews) – The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was concerned that European countries facing the spread of bird flu might divert funding and attention away from South-East Asia, the most likely epicentre of the disease.

"Quite clearly, the result of this could be that governments might [. . .] forget the fact that ground zero is South-East Asia," said Peter Cordingley, WHO spokesman in Manila. It is here, he said, that millions of birds have been culled in an attempt to limit the disease's spread and it is here that the virus might mutate into a form easily transmitted between humans.

Experts warn the fight against the bird flu in Asia is being hampered by huge differences in approaches between countries in the region. Many countries are still unprepared to face the threat. They have poor public health infrastructure and have no stockpiles of expensive anti-viral drugs that could help limit a human pandemic.

WHO said on Friday it needed US$ 260 million from the international community to fight the spread of bird flu in Asia.

So far, about million had been committed to help fight the disease in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, far too little to cope with a virus that is endemic.

Since animals are raised in close proximity to humans it is easy for contagion to take place and new strains to appear.

Some experts believe it would be better to spend some of the money earmarked for antiviral drugs and vaccine research on boosting local veterinary services and surveillance, buying better poultry vaccines and providing farmers with incentives to report outbreaks before they spread out of control. 

"Too much attention is being paid to stockpiling scarce antiviral drugs and developing a vaccine" and "not enough on birds," said Alejandro Thiermann, president of the International Animal Health Code for the animal health body OIE. 

Thiermann, part of a U.S.-led mission to bird flu-hit Southeast Asia last week, urged rich nations to tackle the H5N1 virus by helping "these countries make drastic improvements in public and animal health."

The region is ripe for similar viruses, Thiermann warned. "Let's start building infrastructure and we'll be better off against avian influenza and whatever comes next," he urged. 

In February, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation appealed to foreign donors for 0 million to contain the spread of the disease in Asia, but only million were pledged. 

After visiting the region, US Health Secretary Mike Leavitt said the United States would give US$ 25 million in research, education and better control. He stressed the priority is to fight contagion right on the farm.

Indonesia. Since last July five people have been infected with the H5N1 virus, and three have died. The virus was found in 22 of the country's 33 provinces with the net result that 10 million domestic birds had to be culled.

As Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari pointed out, the situation is really risky because in many Indonesian cities poultry farms can be found and this raises the risk of contagion.

In Jakarta alone there are at least 200 major poultry farms and many experts warn that not enough attention is being given to the danger of contagion. Many families raise chicken for domestic consumption and many households own caged birds and roosters for cock fights.

It is almost impossible to impose controls in time; only a campaign of mass vaccination might be the only solution at hand.

Vietnam. Local authorities are worried by the first recorded case of human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 virus. A 14-year old girl was infected by her brother with a strain resistant to Oseltamivir, a generic version of the well-known Tamiflu anti-flu drug.

To date, the country has suffered the highest number of bird flu-related deaths (41). It has responded by vaccinating millions of domestic birds.

Thailand. Once the fourth biggest poultry exporter, Thailand has imposed tight controls on poultry farms, but the authorities have a harder time in trying to monitor what is going on in private dwellings that are home to an estimated 10 million birds. They did announce though that in the coming spring they might in a position to test a vaccine.

Cambodia. The country's poverty after years of civil war makes any intervention an uphill battle. The authorities are vetting a plan that would involve training 400 "barefoot veterinaries" who would be assigned to rural areas to act as an early warning system in case of any large scale death of birds.

Europe is particularly concerned that the virus might be getting to close for comfort, knocking at its eastern gates: the Middle East.

Turkey. In early October the bird flu showed up on a turkey farm in the village of Kiziksa, in the western province of Balikesir. Ankara said the outbreak had been contained after a three-kilometre cordon sanitaire was thrown up and quarantine imposed.

Some 8,500 birds were culled and health authorities announced the contagion was stopped.

However, "[i]t is certain that it is not avian flu," Agriculture Ministry spokesman Faruk Demirel said when asked about the chicken that died on a farm in the province of Agri near the border with Iran.

About 1,000 hens out of a flock of 6,000 died there, but the authorities were quick to say that they died because they were transported in faulty conditions.

Another thousand hens have died in the last two weeks in a village near Halfeti, a town in a south-eastern Turkish province, but in this case the authorities said they died of pesticide poisoning.

Israel. The government is concerned about the outbreak in Turkey. Stockpiled antiviral drugs cover only 6 per cent of the population even though the WHO recommends at least 25 per cent. Some eight million doses of vaccine are being prepared for poultry.

Jordan and Kuwait are stockpiling drugs. Jordanian Health Minister Saeed Darwazeh and his colleague in the Agriculture Ministry, Muzahem Muyahssen, announced that their government is allocating US$ 12.2 million to purchase antiviral drugs. Poultry imports from countries affected by the bird flu have been banned. A rapid intervention unit is being set up to work with the army in case of need.

In Kuwait the authorities have allocated US$ 17 million to buy drugs.