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UN, Africa agree joint campaign against bird flu

Written by: Staff

LIBREVILLE, Mar 22 (Reuters) United Nations agencies and 45 African countries today agreed to expand health and veterinary surveillance in a coordinated offensive against bird flu on the world's poorest continent.

A joint declaration at the end of the continent's biggest bird flu summit to date in Gabon's capital Libreville said each country needed to implement internationally approved measures to fight the disease in birds and in the event of a human pandemic.

The continent has held several meetings on how to tackle bird flu, but today's ''Libreville Declaration'' was the most comprehensive to date on measures to help control the disease.

However, apart from calling for increased technical and financial assistance, the declaration was thin on detail of how the ambitious upgrading of medical and veterinary monitoring should be funded -- a key concern for most African countries which say they can not afford to do it alone.

The agreement said Africa needed at least three more veterinary laboratories and three more human health laboratories capable of determining the H- and N- sub-types of bird flu.

This is crucial in evaluating the risk from specific outbreaks and tracking the spread of the dangerous H5N1 strain.

At present, most samples from suspected bird flu outbreaks must be sent to European laboratories for tests.

The summit also called on the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to ask airlines to help transport test samples to and from laboratories.

It also called ''on the international community and manufacturers of antivirals, protective equipment, vaccines -- animal and human -- and other supplies to make these products accessible to Africa''.

POLITICAL COMMITMENT Four African countries already have confirmed outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu and Egypt reported the continent's first human death from the disease at the weekend.

But experts say Africa is ill prepared to fight bird flu. The continent has poor health and veterinary services, millions of impoverished inhabitants living close to poultry and a host of other diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

Signatories to the agreement said a firm political commitment at the highest level of government was needed to ensure action against bird flu was properly coordinated, funded and monitored.

They agreed to create a special committee to monitor implementation of today's agreement, including representatives of UN agencies, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the African Union and the UN Secretariat for Influenza Coordination (UNSIC).

The declaration called for more UN assistance to help African countries formulate their anti-bird flu programmes, but said little about precisely how they would be financed, beyond calling for the international help.

It reaffirmed ''the need for countries and the international community to mobilise additional technical and financial resources locally and internationally and to put in place mechanisms to facilitate rapid access to funds for the implementation of integrated plans.'' Donors pledged 1.9 billion dollars at a special conference in China in January to help developing countries strengthen health and veterinary services and boost global surveillance to control the deadly H5N1 disease. But UN bird flu coordinator David Nabarro told the Libreville meeting on Monday that few had paid up.

Reuters PG BD2131

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