U.N. Unveils Plan Against Bird Flu

A team of U.N. experts unveiled a master plan to fight bird flu Wednesday, calling for educating backyard farmers and vaccinating poultry to prevent the disease from becoming a human pandemic.

The job is hard, "but we are not powerless," Dr. Shigeru Omi of the World Health Organization said at the end of a three-day meeting of animal, health and food experts.

The plan "gives us a real chance to make a mark on history as long as we work together with maximum energy and commitment," Omi said in a statement.

The conference was organized by WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health.

Since 2003, tens of million of chickens have died of bird flu or have been slaughtered in East and Southeast Asia. At least 54 people also died in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, most after coming into contact with infected birds.

The U.N. plan focuses on educating small-time farmers and their families about the risk of combining various species such as chickens, ducks and pigs in one enclosure.

Health experts say such practices increase the danger of the avian flu virus spreading from one species to another and possibly mutating into a new strain that would be more easily transmitted between humans than the current H5N1 virus.

The virus currently appears to spread to people mainly when they come into close contact with sick poultry. Medical experts fear a mutated form could trigger a global pandemic.

"We agreed that it is vital to urgently change or even end a number of farming practices that are dangerous to humans," said Joseph Domenech, FAO's chief veterinary officer.

Governments also should pursue the vaccination of poultry flocks in high-risk areas and compensate or reward farmers to encourage them to report suspected bird flu outbreaks and to practice safety measures, the statement said.

Delegates also expressed concern about the open vegetable and meat markets of Asia, where animals are often slaughtered in unsanitary conditions. This threatens the health of humans who are exposed to contaminated blood, feces, feathers and carcasses, the statement said.

The three U.N. agencies will organize a meeting of international donors by the end of 2005 to convince richer countries in the West to commit at least $250 million to help bird flu affected nations over the next three years, Omi told reporters.