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West Africa seeks aid for regional bird flu fund

By Staff
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DAKAR, Feb 23 (Reuters) West African countries called today for international aid to help set up a regional fund to pay for emergency action as they seek to coordinate efforts to prevent the spread of bird flu.

The H5N1 bird flu strain confirmed in Nigeria earlier this month has killed 92 people in Asia and West Asia since 2003 and triggered the culling of millions of domestic fowl.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) plans to test samples from four Nigerians for traces of the virus. The four include a woman who died last week and three people who have now recovered.

Experts fear that in Africa, where chickens live in millions of homes, the virus could spread rapidly and largely undetected due to a scarcity of health, veterinary and laboratory services.

Senegal held a meeting this week for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), aimed at establishing an observation network across West Africa to ensure prompt testing of sick poultry.

''We underline the necessity for a concerted and coordinated approach with regards to putting into practice national plans through a sub-regional prevention coordination mechanism,'' said a joint communique from 12 countries represented at the meeting.

They proposed to set up an emergency fund at the African Development Bank and called for an urgent contribution from international donors.

They gave no indication of the amount required, but said there must be a flexible process for accessing money from the fund.

''This fund will allow us to face situations a country would have difficulty responding to on its own,'' Senegal's Livestock Minister Oumou Khairy Gueye Seck told Reuters.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned yesterday of a looming regional disaster despite efforts by Nigerian authorities to control the outbreak.

Last month, international donors pledged 1.9 billion dollars to help poor countries improve health and veterinary services and global surveillance systems to counter bird flu, but countries must submit funding requests for specific projects.

Bird flu remains essentially an animal disease, with people contracting it only through direct contact with infected birds.

However, there are fears it could mutate into a form that passes easily from person to person, sparking a pandemic in which millions could die.

REUTERS TM RAI2215

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