GENEVA, Nov 8 (Agencies): Experts in human and veterinary health met here Tuesday to plan action for containing the spread of bird flu as the perilous poultry disease claimed a further life in Vietnam and inflicted a suspected sixth fatality in Indonesia.
Earlier on Monday, the World Bank (WB) estimated a human influenza pandemic could cost up to $800 billion a year, or two per cent of global GDP, as health experts warned bird flu was spreading fast.
Meanwhile, the WB announced Tuesday the creation of a $500 million loan programme aimed at getting money swiftly to poor Southeast Asian countries that are struggling to combat an outbreak of avian flu among birds.
The bank announced the loan programme, which is subject to approval by its board next week, at the meeting in Geneva.
Some 400 health and veterinary officials from 100 countries gathered in Geneva to hammer out a strategy to stop the deadly H5N1 virus which is endemic in poultry in much of Asia from triggering a human pandemic that could kill millions
"The prime goal is to reduce viral excretion and the circulation of the virus in fowl and another domestic birds," said Bernard Vallat, director-general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the global watchdog for safe trade in meat and farm animals.
"Reducing the virus (in birds) reduces the risks of a human pandemic."
Vallat said that early detection and reporting of the H5N1 virus was vital. For every 48 hours that elapses between an outbreak and action, "the costs multiply thousands of times," he said.
Since it erupted among ducks, chickens and geese in Southeast Asia two years ago, the H5N1 strain of avian influenza has claimed scores of lives and inflicted more than 10 billion dollars in economic damage, much of which is being shouldered by poor farmers.
The Director-General of the WHO Lee Jong-Wook said Monday H5N1 avian influenza, known to have killed 63 people in four Asian countries and led to the culling of 150 million birds worldwide, was on the move.
"We have been experiencing the relentless spread of avian flu. Migratory birds, as they move around the world to seasonal breeding and feeding grounds, are infecting domestic poultry flocks around the world," Lee told the conference.
He said it was only a matter of time before an avian flu virus, most likely H5N1, acquired the ability to be transmitted from human to human.
"We don't know when this will happen, but we know it will happen," Lee said. "No society will be exempt."
The virus remains hard for people to catch and is passed on almost exclusively through human contact with birds. But should it spark a human pandemic, the cost may be huge.
In a report on the bird flu threat, the WB said a two per cent loss of global GDP during an influenza pandemic -- like that caused by SARS in East Asia during the second quarter of 2003 -- would represent about $200 billion in losses in one quarter or $800 billion over a year.