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Saturday, February 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Conference urges changes in how poultry are raised

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Poultry breeding in Asia must change radically if a bird-flu pandemic is to be avoided, health and agricultural experts said at the end of a three-day international meeting.

Up to 40 million farmers in Southeast Asia raise chickens, ducks and geese in their back yards 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 46 people since the end of 2003.

"This is the crux of the issue," Shigeru Omi of the World Health Organization (WHO) said 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, marked the first time the international group of officials, scientists and experts agreed on the need to change farming practices to avert a massive public-health problem or pandemic.

"In the last 12 months, we have made some headway," said Juan Lubroth, a senior animal-health officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "But it will take several years."

So far, health officials think that nearly all the people who have died from the disease became sick after having contact with infected poultry.

There's no evidence to suggest that H5N1, the type of bird virus that's causing human disease in Asia, has developed the ability to spread easily from person to person.

But over time, health officials said, the virus could mutate so that efficient human transmission occurs, causing a pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide. There's no way to predict when that might happen or how many people could die, but experts take the possibility seriously.

"The longer the virus circulates in poultry, the higher the probability of exposure in humans," said Samuel Jutzi of FAO.

In many parts of rural Asia, ducks and chickens live close to the farmers who raise them. In Vietnam, for example, it's not unusual to see chickens wandering in and out of houses.

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U.N. officials said "several hundred million dollars" — some FAO officials estimated $300 million — would be needed to improve poultry-breeding practices and sanitation, partly to 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 also should 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 Jutzi, FAO's director of animal production and health.

"We're rather disappointed by the international response," he said, "given the enormous threat" of the problem.

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.

Yesterday, a 21-year-old man from a northern Vietnamese province tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain.

Going to the source, to the small farms that far outnumber the large ones, is critical to eradicating the virus, officials said.

That means moving to larger production farms and segregating animals by type and poultry by generation so that chicks are kept separate from parents, Troedsson said.

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.

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.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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