While avian influenza has been successfully checked in Western Europe and much of Southeast Asia apart from Indonesia, it is still expanding in Africa and will remain a threat for years to come, FAO Deputy Director-General David Harcharik told a high-level meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Geneva today.

"In the majority of cases, wherever HPAI [highly pathogenic avian influenza] has made its appearance we, the global community and the countries concerned have been able to stop it in its tracks," Mr Harcharik said, speaking at an ECOSOC special event meeting on bird flu.

But "HPAI poses a continuing threat and we must brace ourselves to go on fighting it, quite likely for years," he warned. HPAI, he said, was still a source of concern in Indonesia and continued to spread in Africa, where it risked becoming endemic in several countries.

Mr Harcharik cited difficulties in enforcing appropriate control measures such as culling, farmer compensation and checks on animal movements in African countries. Another complication was illegal trade in poultry.

"Until such trade is effectively checked by stronger official veterinary authorities, and until better surveillance, alert-response, diagnostics and reporting is achieved, the risk will remain with us," Mr Harcharik said.

Continuing threat

Mr Harcharik stressed it was imperative to act quickly and decisively to stop HPAI wherever it appeared because so long as the H5N1 virus causing HPAI stayed in circulation it would remain a threat to the international community.

H5N1 had not so far mutated into a form transmittable from one human being to another. But should it do so, the result could be a pandemic of vast proportions, he said.

In the two and half years of the present avian influenza emergency, some 200 million poultry have been culled, causing losses of 10 billion dollars in Southeast Asia alone. At last count in early July there had been 229 human cases of H5N1 infection resulting in the deaths of 131 persons.

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