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World: How Will Money Raised To Fight Bird Flu Be Spent?

By Jeremy Bransten

Donor countries and organizations have pledged $1.9 billion to fight the spread of the bird-flu virus. The pledges came during a conference which ended on 18 January in Beijing. How will the money be spent and where is it most needed?

PRAGUE, 19 January 2006 -- The World Bank, which co-sponsored the conference along with the European Union and China, expressed satisfaction at the outcome.

The pledges made in the Chinese capital surpassed the World Bank’s original target of $1.2 billion. Some $1 billion was pledged in grants and $900 million in loans. The United States, which promised over $330 million in grants, was the biggest donor.

The question now is how to best spend the money once it comes in.

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, in a video message to conference participants, said the immediate goal is to contain the H5N1 strain of the bird-flu virus responsible for almost 80 human deaths and millions of forced animal culls. But he also stressed that investing in health surveillance measures -- especially in poorer regions of Asia worst affected by the disease -- will pay off in other ways, too.

"None of us can know whether this [avian-influenza] strain, H5N1, will result in a global pandemic, but what we can be certain of is that the investments we make now to prevent and control the further spread of the virus are investments in long-term development. They will help countries better protect themselves against future threats of pandemics and prevent the unraveling of hard-won economic and social gains," Wolfowitz said.

Christine McNab, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in Geneva, told RFE/RL that the first focus for spending should be on bird control and improving veterinary services in countries already affected by outbreaks.

"The priorities are agreed by the international partners which were at this meeting," McNab said. "One is to eliminate the risk of people being infected by bird flu, by this H5N1. So one major priority is to control these outbreaks of H5N1 in animals. That means both culling animals which are infected in Asian countries as well as newly infected countries such as Turkey, it means potentially vaccinating birds, it also means improving the veterinary services so that outbreaks can be detected very quickly and acted upon."

Monitoring programs, McNab added, should also be improved for humans populations in developing countries. "We’re aware that where the weakness lies is especially in area where, for example, the systems can’t detect influenza cases, where they can’t confirm what kind of influenza might be present, where there simply aren’t enough health workers, where there aren’t enough laboratory facilities," she said. "So what we need to do again is strengthen the systems in areas right now which are too resource-poor to do that."

The next area where money should be targeted, according to McNab, is in public education. "It means obviously also a massive public-information campaign, so that people are very much aware of where the risks lie and that people are equipped to eliminate their own risk of being infected by poultry or the birds," she said.

Lastly, according to McNab, money should be put into stockpiling human antiviral agents such as Tamiflu, which provide the only known defense for humans against bird flu. After that, funds should be spent on research so a vaccine can be developed should the H5N1 strain, or another bird-flu variant, mutate into a pandemic agent that is transmitted easily from human to human.


Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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