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World: International Conference Aims For Coordinated Response To Bird Flu

The threat of the strain mutating and causing an epidemic is real Delegates from more than 65 countries and international agencies were meeting in Washington this week to formulate a coordinated response to avian influenza before it can cause a human pandemic that could kill millions.

Prague, 7 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The two-day meeting (6-7 October), sponsored by the U.S. State Department, was called to find ways to exchange information quickly and allow health experts to contain the avian flu virus if it mutates and begins to cause a human pandemic.

The conference began yesterday, a day after scientists announced that they had reproduced the 1918 "Spanish flu" virus that caused a deadly pandemic that killed tens of millions. The scientists determined the pandemic was caused directly by bird flu.

Last week, Dr. David Nabaaro, the UN official tasked with preparing the world for a bird-flu outbreak, warned that as many as 150 million people could die if the avian flu virus were to mutate.

Speaking at the conference, U. S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt yesterday made it clear that the threat of an epidemic was real.

"All of us are aware that the world has, on three different occasions during this century, seen pandemics -- different viruses, different circumstances, but nevertheless, pandemics," Leavitt said. "We will see them again. There are troubling signs on H5N1 (bird flu virus). If it does not materialize there will be another and we need to be ready."

News agencies report that the United States hoped the conference would adopt 10-15 policy priorities for countries to implement. They include a commitment to quick and accurate reporting of outbreaks, donor support for affected countries, and a pledge to work with the World Health Organization.
As many as 150 million people could die if the avian flu virus were to mutate, according to the UN official tasked with preparing the world for a bird-flu outbreak.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns yesterday told delegates at the meeting that the world needs to act decisively and be prepared.

"The emergence of high path [bird flu] in Southeast Asia and the possibility of a global pandemic is an issue that concerns all of us," Johanns said. "Your presence here today demonstrates that you recognize the seriousness of the threat we face. Ladies and gentlemen, as a global community, if we fail to act decisively, the repercussions will be significant at all levels and in every country."

The meeting of international health experts was to conclude today in Washington.

U.S. President George W. Bush was expected to meet with U.S. drug companies today to discuss preparations for manufacturing vaccines against avian flu.

On 4 October, President Bush said stopping the avian flu is a priority. He has asked Congress for the authority to use the military to enforce a quarantine, should that be necessary.

The H5N1 avian influenza virus has infected more than 100 people, killing nearly 70 people in four Asian countries since late 2003. The latest death was this week reported in Vietnam.

The virus has also killed or forced the destruction of tens of millions of birds.