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Fight against bird flu should be national priority in Indonesia – UN Agency

22 September 2005 – Concerned over the spread of bird flu in Indonesia, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today called for stepped up government control measures and funding to combat the virus, which in a worst case scenario could mutate into a worldwide pandemic, killing tens of millions of people.

“The fight against bird flu should become a national priority and veterinary and civil authorities should be provided with the full power to enforce disease control measures,” FAO said in the latest warning on the spreading H5N1 virus since the first human case linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand was reported in January last year.

“More financial resources should be made available for the control of bird flu in animals to prevent a human pandemic,” it added, noting the challenge posed by some 30 million backyard village households keeping around 200 million chickens. It called for major public awareness campaigns to inform farmers about risks and control strategies.

Local veterinary services should be strengthened to enable them to detect outbreaks at a very early stage and immediately carry out control measures such as culling and targeted vaccination in high risk areas. The national vaccination strategy should be reviewed to ensure that only quality vaccines are used, in accordance with the inter-governmental World Animal Health Organization (OIE) standards.

Four people have died of bird flu in Indonesia and others are suspected of having the virus. Overall, there have been some 120 reported human H5N1 cases, about 60 of them fatal, all in South-East Asia, since January 2004. Some 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled in an effort to curb the spread.

UN health officials have repeatedly warned that the H5N1 virus could evolve into a global influenza pandemic if it mutates into a form which could transmit easily between people. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, unrelated to the present virus, is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.

Last month FAO warned that H5N1 was likely to be carried from South-East Asia along the flyways of wild water birds to the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and Africa. It has already reached Russia and Kazakhstan.

“Avian influenza has become endemic in Indonesia and it is continuing to spread,” FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said today. “In view of the worrying situation, it is necessary for the government to improve its virus control policies and strategies.”

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) said today it had not raised its current level of pandemic alert but would continue to monitor the situation closely. Given the experience of other H5N1 affected countries in Asia, the detection of further human cases in Indonesia or elsewhere would not be surprising, it added.

In all affected countries, most human cases of H5N1 infection have been linked to contact with poultry. In a few instances, limited human-to-human transmission of the virus may have occurred following close contact with a patient during the acute phase of illness. In all known instances, such transmission has been limited and has not led to larger outbreaks in the general community, indicating that the virus does not spread easily among people at this time, WHO added.