Fighting bird flu to cost up to $1bn

Fighting bird flu in poultry across the world and preparing for a human influenza pandemic will cost up to $1-billion over the next three years, the World Bank said on Wednesday.

That cost does not include the stockpiling of antiviral drugs and human flu vaccines, Fadia Saadah, of the World Bank, told a global meeting on how to contain the disease.

“Let me stress that these are indicative figures; if tomorrow one of these countries [at risk] or a new country is affected, these figures will change,” Saadah said.

She added that if the bird-flu virus starts to mutate and transmit from human to human, “all of these figures will be multiplied by several orders of magnitude”.

About 90% of the money will be needed by individual countries, with the remainder used by agencies such as the World Health Organisation that are fighting the disease, Saadah said.

She said the costs are based on initial, rough estimates to help the world move ahead as fast as possible in the fight against the disease. The World Bank figure is based on the needs of countries already affected by the current outbreak of bird flu and those at high risk of contracting the disease.

Initial costs

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said it and the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health need $60-million now for initial measures to stamp out bird flu in the countries where it has already struck.

Over the next three years, they will need another $500-million for further efforts, including the culling of poultry, boosting laboratory capacities and strengthening countries’ veterinary systems.

The Asian Development Bank promised $470-million as its contribution to minimising the impact of the disease.

The bank said it is adding $300-million to the $170-million it has already made available to tackle the outbreak of the H5N1 strain of the virus in birds.

Poorer countries and regional projects will get grants from the funds made available, while activities in better-off nations will be financed by loans, the bank said.

The money will be used for a variety of activities, ranging from strengthening early disease-detection systems and improving laboratories to funding compensation programmes for poultry farmers and a regional stockpile of flu drugs. So far, $60-million has been earmarked for regional projects.

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 programmes and pledges, more money will be spent on stockpiling of 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, director of animal production and health at the FAO. “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 which are put at the problem, 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.”

Countries such as The Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong have succeeded in eliminating highly deadly bird flu from their poultry populations, Jutzi noted.

Experts divided

The financial session came on the final day of the conference at which experts have remained divided over whether the deadly bird-flu strain ravaging farms in parts of Asia can be wiped out in poultry.

While the FAO says that, given enough money, the virus could be eliminated from the global poultry population within a year, bird specialists at the animal health agency disagree. They argue that the constant reintroduction of the virus from wild birds and the continuing close contact between poultry and wildlife in Asia means the best the world can hope for is to contain it until it mutates—either to a milder form and disappears or into a human strain capable of spreading globally.

Stamping out H5N1 in poultry is considered the best defence against the possibility it could mutate into a human strain, sparking a global epidemic 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.—Sapa-AP