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UN Task Forces Battle Avian Flu Misconceptions

UN Task Forces Battle Misconceptions Of Avian Flu, Mount Indonesian Campaign

A new United Nations task force warned today against the "over-simplified" perception that wild birds are the main cause of avian flu, and urged immediate measures be taken among both domestic and wild bird populations to guard against its possible transference, while a UN task force in Indonesia begins a door-to-door campaign to help poultry farmers deal with the pathogen.

Governments, local authorities and international agencies need to take a greatly increased role in combating the role of factory-farming, commerce in live poultry, and wildlife markets which provide ideal conditions for the virus to spread and mutate into a more dangerous form, the Task Force convened by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) said today.

At the same time in Indonesia, where several human death cases from the avian flu have recently been recorded, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is busy coordinating a health response from the national level on down to the many districts and local communities.

"We are wasting valuable time pointing fingers at wild birds when we should be focusing on dealing with the root causes of this epidemic spread which are clearly to be found in rural poultry practices, the movement of domestic poultry, and farming methods which crowd huge numbers of animals into small spaces," Task Force observer, and director of Field Veterinary Programme of the Wildlife Conservation Society, William Karesh said.

The CMS Task Force is opposed to a general policy of culling wild birds, supports tough controls on trade of wild and domestic birds, and warned against the used of uncertified vaccines. "Some have already been found to increase resistance to drugs," said John O'Sullivan of Birdlife International.

Ever since the first human case of bird flu, linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand, was reported in January last year, UN health officials have warned that the avian flu, otherwise known as the H5N1 virus, could evolve into a global influenza pandemic if it mutates into a form which could be transmitted easily between people.

Some of the key issues are lack of knowledge about how the virus is transmitted between wild and domestic birds, how it behaves in wild birds, and which migratory routes pose the most risk. The Task Force recommended that Governments and international agencies use research and risk assessment to determine the answers, act quickly when the virus appears, and cooperate with other Governments to avoid duplication.

The CMS Task Force also considered a list of 36 waterbird species which are already threatened in the wild, and are considered vulnerable, including the Lesser White-Fronted Goose, Red-breasted Goose, Swan Goose, Oriental Stork and Siberian Crane, among others.

In Indonesia, FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer, Joseph Domenech said "The bird flu is threatening to become endemic in several parts of the country."

FAO is setting up a task force with national veterinary authorities, ministries and the World Health Organization (WHO) to monitor the situation, and to create awareness among rural and suburban communities about how the virus can be spread to humans and among animals, said Mr. Domenech, noting that most big poultry producers have already managed to protect themselves with biosecurity and virus control.

Animal health workers will go from house to house in search of sick birds, and will decide in conjunction with Indonesian authorities whether slaughtering, vaccination, or biosecurity measures are required.

"This military-like approach against avian influenza has proved very successful in Thailand," Mr. Roeder said, adding that FAO, with $1.5 million in funding from US Agency for International Development (USAID), will be bringing Thai experts to train hundreds of animal health technicians in Indonesia.

What's still missing is an in-the-field kit for detecting the presence of the flu. Specimens still have to be sent to a lab for results, a laborious, time-consuming process. "FAO therefore appeals to researchers in universities and biotech companies to urgently develop such an important tool," Mr. Domenech added.

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