HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Feb. 25 -- Poultry breeding in Asia must undergo a radical change if a global bird flu pandemic is to be avoided, health and agricultural experts said at the conclusion of a three-day international meeting.
Up to 40 million farmers in Southeast Asia raise chickens, ducks and geese in their backyards or on small farms, according to statistics. Officials at the 28-nation conference said the farmers must change their practice of letting the fowl mix and roam freely to prevent the spread of the avian influenza virus that has killed at least 45 people in the region since the end of 2003.
"This is the crux of the issue," said Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization's Western Pacific director, in an interview after the conference. "Vaccines are important. Sanitation is important. But this is the root of the problem."
The conference, organized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), marked the first time the international group of officials, scientists and experts agreed on the need to change farming practices to avert a global pandemic.
"In the last 12 months, we have made some headway, and I think we will see dramatic improvement," said Juan Lubroth, a senior animal health officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization. "But it will take several years."
U.N. officials said "several hundred million dollars" -- some FAO officials estimated $300 million -- would be needed to improve poultry breeding practices and sanitation, to partially compensate farmers for slaughtered chickens and to strengthen animal health services and laboratories to improve virus detection.
International donor organizations are expected to contribute, but countries at risk should also raise funds from the public and private sectors, officials said. These countries include Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
So far, the international response has been lacking, said Samuel Jutzi, director of animal production and health for the FAO. "We're rather disappointed by the international response," he said, "given the enormous threat" of the problem.
But, he noted, the countries affected must also articulate clear plans of action and make specific requests for money.
In the past year, health officials have seen that the mass culling of poultry is not the long-term solution, said Hans Troedsson, the WHO's representative in Vietnam, the hardest-hit country where 13 people have died from the bird flu since Dec. 30. On Friday, a 21-year-old man from a northern Vietnamese province tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus.
Going to the source, to the small farms that far outnumber the large ones, is critical to eradicating the virus, officials said.
Officials urged segregating animals by type and poultry by generation so that chicks are kept separate from parents. They also recommended moving production to larger farms.
Persuading farmers to change age-old practices will take education and effort, and getting market vendors to segregate ducks from chickens from pigs will require new regulations and enforcement, officials said. "That is a high order," Lubroth said.
The virus has cost the poultry and tourism industries $10 billion.
The conference also confirmed what officials had long suspected, that ducks were "silent breeders," able to carry the virus while showing no symptoms.
Officials stressed that they could not predict when a pandemic would occur. "The threat is real and the potential is very high," Jutzi said. "The longer the virus circulates in poultry production systems, the higher the probability of exposure to humans."