March 7, 2006

FAO to Boost Bird Flu Role

By Robin Pomeroy

ROME (Reuters) - The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is to play a greater role in fighting bird flu, becoming a "global clearing house" for efforts to stem the spread of the virus, it said on Tuesday.

The United States and the European Union have backed the formation of a what a senior U.S. official called an "emergency operations center" at the FAO's Rome headquarters. The initiative was agreed at a meeting at the FAO requested by the U.S. and EU.

Funding for the center will come from a pot of almost $2 billion pledged by wealthy nations at an international conference in Beijing in January. The U.S. would provide experts to help run the center and expects other nations to follow suit.

The move follows the spread of H5N1 avian flu into at least 15 new nations over the past month, with cases detected in birds in several countries across Europe and also in flocks in Egypt and West Africa.

The virus, which re-emerged in Asia in late 2003, can wipe out poultry flocks in the space of 48 hours. It can also infect people who come into close contact with sick poultry and has claimed 95 human lives.

The virus is mutating and there are fears it may eventually change enough to be transmitted easily from human to human, sparking a pandemic in which millions could die.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, said on Tuesday it had found cases of highly pathogenic bird flu in three new states including one in the far south, suggesting the virus has spread all over the West African country.


The FAO intends to set up an "early warning system," to track the spread of the virus and estimate where the next outbreaks may occur, said Samuel Jutzi, head of animal production and health at the FAO.

"It would undertake 'rumor tracking' and would be similar to what the World Health Organization has to observe and monitor developments of epidemics 24 hours-a-day," Jutzi told Reuters.

Ron DeHaven, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's top official on bird flu, who attended the meeting, said the efforts to tackle bird flu in animals had, to date, mostly been done bilaterally and something that had to change.

"If you can have a global strategy, recognize what the needs are globally and then direct resources of the right kind where they are needed the most, you can be far more effective," DeHaven told reporters.

The Unites States has not yet had a case of bird flu, but authorities there are "very concerned" about the virus and are acting on the assumption that it will get there one day.

"Whether it arrives (in the United States) next week, next month or a year from now, we don't know, so we have to prepare as well and as quickly as we can," he said.

Poultry sales in United States have not yet been hit by fears over the disease, unlike in parts of Europe where sales plummeted even before the virus was found, DeHaven noted, adding that U.S. authorities were working to reassure the public.

"We don't think that after we find H5N1 in the U.S. is the time to start to educate our public, we're doing it now ... we hope to minimize what impact there might be when and if we get the virus in the united States."

Experts have said repeatedly that properly cooked poultry is safe to eat, but that has failed to reassure all consumers.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon in Abuja)