INTERVIEW-OIE chief urges world bird flu compensation fund

PARIS, Oct 19 (Reuters) - The head of the World Animal Health body OIE said on Thursday an international fund to compensate farmers in poor countries for bird flu culls was urgently needed to ensure reporting of the deadly virus.

Officials from the OIE, World Bank, European Commission and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) met in Paris this week with the aim of setting up a fund by early next year.

"We'd like to convince the international financial institutions to have a world fund reserved for animal health emergencies," OIE Director General Bernard Vallat said.

"Once a crisis erupts in a developing country, it's very rare there are funds available for compensation, which costs a lot of money," he told Reuters.

Experts believe there has been significant under-reporting of the H5N1 bird flu virus in poultry in parts of Asia and Africa, largely because farmers fear heavy losses if they notify the authorities and are then forced into widespread culling.

"If there is not an absolute guarantee that the farmer will be reimbursed in a fair, equitable and rapid way, there is a tendency towards very dangerous behaviour," Vallat said, adding this could mean selling birds on at local open-air markets.

"This could be a powerful vector in circulating the virus."

H5N1 still mainly affects birds, but has killed more than 150 people in nine countries. It re-surfaced in Asia in 2003 and has since spread to Europe and Africa.

The World Health Organisaenv tion believes H5N1 could be the most likely cause of the next flu pandemic if it mutates into a form that could be easily passed among humans.

The World Bank has estimated that a severe flu pandemic could cost the global economy up to $2 trillion.

The OIE says the best way to prevent such a pandemic is by tackling the virus at source by stamping out the disease as quickly as possible in the bird population.

It also says this saves money.

"It's essential that declarations are made rapidly because the hours count in these situations. Without early detection and a rapid response, the spread becomes exponential, and the costs become extremely heavy," Vallat said.

While outbreaks of the virus in Europe have proved relatively short-lived due to tight veterinary controls, H5N1 has become endemic in parts of Asia and Africa, where government budgets in dealing with such crises are severely limited.

Vallat said it took around 18 months for the international community to react properly to the emergence of H5N1 in Asia.

"And that's why the disease spread to Europe and Africa. We need a world fund that can act immediately," he said.

Vallat said it was too early say how much money would be needed. He said officials were now working on more detailed economic assessment of needs and this would be discussed at a major bird flu conference in Mali in early December.


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