There is no time to lose here.
Warning that a flu pandemic was "inevitable," the head of the World Health Organization on Monday urged every country to a prepare and act on a national action plan.
"It is only a matter of time before an avian flu virus - most likely H5N1 - acquires the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza," said Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, director general of the WHO. "We don't know when this will happen. But we do know that it will happen."
Lee's comments came at the opening of a three-day conference in Geneva designed to develop a global strategy to deal with bird flu, which so far has killed at least 63 people in four Asian countries. More than 150 million birds have been culled worldwide but Lee said the virus was still spreading rapidly.
"We have been experiencing the relentless spread of avian flu," he said. "Migratory birds, as they move around the world to seasonal breeding and feeding grounds, are infecting domestic poultry flocks around the world."
The 63 deaths reported so far are believed to have been caused by people coming in close contact with infected birds. Officials fear that if the H5N1 virus mutates, it could combine with human flu viruses and trigger a human pandemic in which millions could die.
"Action is required now," insisted Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division at the Food and Agriculture Organization. "There is no time to lose here."
"There is no outbreak of human pandemic influenza anywhere in the world today," Lee noted, but warned, "The signs are clear that it is coming.
"If we are unprepared, the next pandemic will cause incalculable human misery. Both directly from the loss of human life, and indirectly through its widespread impact on security. No society would be exempt. No economy would be left unscathed."
While much of the focus has been on the possible death toll from a pandemic - with some projections of up to 150 million dead - conference attendees were told by the World Bank on Monday that the global economic toll could be up to $800 billion after one year. About 70 percent of that loss would be sustained by the world's richest countries, it said.
That figure could go even higher, officials said, if the pandemic was more severe.
The World Bank planned to launch an appeal for $500 million at the conference to aid countries hit by a pandemic. Another $500 million will come from grants and aid.
Laos has requested $34 million in aid, while Cambodia sought more than $7 million to deal with a pandemic.
Developing countries also called for greater access to bird flu vaccines and drugs.
The conference is being attended by more than 400 human and animal health experts, senior policy makers, economists and industry representatives from around the world.
Among the topics being discussed at the conference are ways to prevent and contain the spread of the H5N1 virus among birds and from birds to humans; methods to increase surveillance, detection, diagnosis and reporting of cases; issues dealing with vaccines, including stockpiling and distributing drugs; and developing communications and preparedness plans.
David Nabarro, senior United Nations coordinator for avian and human influenza, admitted that officials were racing against the clock.
"Normally it takes six months to design a program of this kind," he said. "We have three days."
But he said those three days could prove critical.
"If the pandemic started tomorrow, and we started to get prepared after tomorrow, it would be far too late," he said. "You can't prepare when you have a pandemic under way. It's like trying to get firemen ready to fight a fire when the fire's already burning."
In related developments:
- All of Beijing's 169 live poultry markets were ordered to close immediately as China stepped up efforts to fight bird flu. Officials also reported killing 6 million birds in Liaoning province, east of Beijing, the site of the country's latest bird flu outbreak.
- Swiss drug maker Roche said it was stepping up production of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to meet worldwide demand. The drug is thought to be the most effective method of fighting bird flu currently available.
- The European Union pledged $35.7 million to help Asian nations fight the avian flu virus.
- Kentucky Fried Chicken was preparing TV commercials and other materials to reassure customers that it is safe to eat chicken, according to a report in Advertising Age. Poultry producers Tyson Foods and Perdue were also planning to launch campaigns to educate the public about bird flu, the magazine said.
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