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Experts wonder if bird flu can be wiped out
Updated: 2005-11-09 10:08

GENEVA - Experts were divided Tuesday over whether the deadly bird flu strain ravaging farms in parts of Asia can be wiped out in poultry.

Veterinary experts at the U.N.'s agriculture agency said that given enough money, the virus can be eliminated from the global poultry population within a year.

However, a bird specialist at the World Organization for Animal Health said the close contact between poultry and wild birds in Asia means the most that can be hoped for is to contain the virus until it mutates to a milder form and disappears, or develops into a human strain capable of spreading globally.

The experts spoke to The Associated Press on the sidelines of a global coordination meeting on bird flu and human pandemic flu hosted by the World Health Organization.

Stamping out the H5N1 virus in poultry is considered the best defense against the possibility it could bcome a human strain that sparks a global pandemic capable of killing millions of people.

Experts agree a global flu epidemic is certain, but it is unknown when that will occur, whether the H5N1 strain will be the culprit or how deadly the pandemic will be.

Nobody has kept track of exactly how much has been spent on trying to eliminate H5N1 from poultry stocks. However, the World Bank estimates that on the basis of current programs and pledges, more money will be spent on stockpiling flu drugs than on efforts to control the disease in poultry.

"On the one hand, there's a certain frustration, but we see the money now flowing, so we're more optimistic than we were half a year ago," said Samuel Jutzi of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. "We are having discussions with several donors who are prepared to come in on an emergency mode."

But much more money is needed, he said.

"With the current resources ... it cannot be contained," said Jutzi. "With the right resources in the domestic bird population, it should be a matter of a year to get rid of it."

The Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong have eliminated highly deadly bird flu from their poultry populations, Jutzi noted. "They used the instruments available and put the necessary resources behind it and were successful in a short time," he said.

Jutzi said the FAO plans to announce its estimate of how much money would be needed to eliminate the virus from the world's poultry stocks on Wednesday. He would not reveal the figure in advance.

However, Alejandro Thiermann, president of the International Animal Health Code at the World Organization for Animal Health, said he does not believe the virus can be eliminated in poultry.

"The virus is here to stay until, through genetic mutations, it really causes havoc or it's defeated by nature and disappears. But we are not going to be able to make it disappear from domestic birds," Thiermann said.

However, the virus can be successfully controlled, he said, by rapidly detecting and snuffing out new infections.

"We certainly have the tools to bring it to a point where we can manage it and almost eliminate the chance of it becoming a pandemic strain," he said.

Even though scientists are learning more about the virus and countries are getting better at reacting to the problem, the spread of the virus continues.

Dr. Mike Ryan, director of epidemic and pandemic alert and response at WHO, said that whether or not the virus can be eliminated in poultry, the target is worth aiming for.

In its current form, H5N1 does not easily infect people. However, 124 human infections have been recorded, mostly in poultry farmers or others in close contact with birds, and at least 63 people have died.

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