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Donors' meeting opens in Beijing to fight bird flu
Updated: 2006-01-17 16:55

A two-day international donors' meeting aimed at raising 1.5 billion dollars to help fight bird flu has opened in Beijing, amid warnings of a "great risk" of a global pandemic.

Officials from half the world's nations gathered in China to come up with the money needed to finance a three-year action plan that was laid out at the first donors' conference in Geneva in November.

The conference comes as the disease, which has killed nearly 80 people mostly in Asia, has spread to the Middle East and onto Europe over the past year, with Turkey confirming Monday its fourth human fatality.

"We live on the same planet and our destinies are interconnected," China's vice foreign minister, Qiao Zonghuai, said in his opening address to launch the International Pledging Conference on Avian and Human Influenza.

"In the fight against avian influenza, no country can stay safe by looking the other way."

Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization's special representative on pandemic influenza, gave a stark picture of the uncertainty facing the world over the H5N1 strain of the virus.

"The risk of a pandemic is great. The timing is unpredictable and the severity is uncertain," Chan told the conference.

The conference, which is co-sponsored by China, the European Commission and the World Bank, is aiming to assess the financing needs at the country, regional and global levels.

It will invite the international community to pledge financial support and discuss how to set up mechanisms to coordinate the fight against bird flu.

Qiao said there was a "significant shortfall of funds" in many affected countries and international agencies, which will "seriously hamper" their prevention and control efforts.

"Convened at this crucial moment, the pledging conference, therefore, is of great significance to mobilising necessary resources and technical assistance and enhancing international cooperation," said Qiao.

Funds raised will be given to needy countries in the form of grants and low-interest loans to help them strengthen surveillance systems.

This will include the training of agriculture and health workers and strategies to better detect outbreaks and cases, and how to respond to them.

Money will also be used to expand the global stockpile of anti-viral drugs and to prepare a currently non-existent vaccine.

Experts told the conference that for the global plan to work and the funding to be used effectively, it was crucial the global community showed strong political commitment, be transparent and coordinate with each other.

"Unless we are working as one, we don't get a good result," said David Nabarro, senior UN system coordinator for avian and human influenza.

Juergen Voegele, a member of the World Bank's avian influenza task force, said in the lead-up to this week's gathering that the spread of the virus westwards from Asia was a wake-up call for the world.

"People were under the impression that the human cases of avian influenza were confined to Asia. Now people are beginning to wake up... every country needs to do something now," Voegele said.

The deaths of four children in Turkey this month -- the first victims outside Southeast Asia and China -- have stoked fears the virus is spreading globally.

Scientists fear the more the virus spreads, the greater the chance H5N1 will mutate into a form that is easily transmissible between humans and spark a global pandemic that could claim millions of lives.

Since reappearing in Southeast Asia in 2003, the H5N1 strain of bird flu has infected about 150 people, killed about 80 people in six countries, the majority of them in Vietnam, according to the WHO's toll.

Officials from 90 countries and 25 organizations are represented in Beijing.

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