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U.S. Braces for Bird Flu as Global Efforts Falter

WASHINGTON - Bird flu likely would be detected in the United States this year, federal officials warned Monday as a top UN official said efforts to fight a pandemic in Africa were hamstrung by a lack of money.

Migratory birds are increasingly likely to bring ashore avian influenza to the United States and would be subject to increased monitoring under government plans to reduce the risks of a viral wildfire, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt told journalists.

Nigeria, February 11, 2006. Fewer than three dozen nations are capable of the early detection and quick response needed to contain rapidly spreading bird flu and other viruses that could threaten humans, a health official said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde ''None of us can build a cage around the United States. We have to be prepared to deal with the virus here,'' said Johanns, a former Nebraska governor.

In particular, monitoring would concentrate on Alaska, Hawaii, and Pacific islands, Norton said. That is where scientists have said the more dangerous strain of H5N1 virus most likely would arrive.

The World Health Organization has blamed H5N1 in the deaths of 98 people worldwide since 2003.

Johanns cautioned against panic once bird flu is detected on U.S. soil, saying that alone would not mean the start of an epidemic among humans.

Were the virus to hit the $29 billion-a-year American poultry industry, however, authorities would quarantine affected areas, destroy infected flocks, and compensate farmers for their loss, he said.

U.S. authorities and poultry producers had dealt with three previous outbreaks of other forms of bird flu: in 1924, 1983, and 2004.

Bird flu is hard to catch. Humans can contract the virus when handling--and especially slaughtering--infected birds but the flu does not appear to be transmitted through cooked meat or eggs.

Initially, the virus spread as a result of chickens mixing with domesticated and wild waterfowl that carried it and transmitted it through their sputum and excreta.

Scientists fear that the virus could mutate into a form that people could easily get and pass on to others, sparking a potential human pandemic.

Last November, President George W. Bush announced a $7.1 billion plan to stockpile enough vaccine against the current strain of bird flu to protect some 20 million Americans. The federal government also would store about $1 billion worth of anti-viral drugs that lessen the severity of flu symptoms. The Bush plan drew buckshot from lawmakers and health and consumer advocates who said it was unrealistic, relied too heavily on the private sector, and placed too heavy a financial burden on states to pay for drugs from the national stockpile.

Additionally, groups including the Global AIDS Alliance and Health GAP warned that the U.S. stockpile would undermine poorer countries' efforts to contain the disease and treat their populations.

Health advocates acknowledged that Roche AG, which makes oseltamivir under the brand name Tamiflu, had offered to allow other companies to make generic versions of the drug. They nevertheless urged the United States and other countries confronting potential pandemics to suspend or override patents in order to access necessary supplies.

On Monday, the United Nations' top bird flu coordinator said the world body and African countries would have to scrape together money for emergency plans because wealthy governments had so far failed to make good on pledges of aid to help poor countries combat the virus and its lethal effects.

Donors had pledged $1.9 billion in January during a special conference in China called to help poor countries strengthen medical, veterinary, and laboratory systems and boost global surveillance measures to control the spread of the H5N1 virus.

Yet, ''there are insufficient resources available at the present time to put in place emergency plans and prepare a coordinated response,'' David Nabarro, the senior UN coordinator for avian influenza, was quoted as saying in news reports from bird flu crisis talks in Libreville.

''African countries and the United Nations system must contribute resources to make up for this, in the hope that development partners will react rapidly,'' Nabarro said. Exact figures on the funding shortfall were not immediately available.

Nabarro spoke after Egyptian authorities said over the weekend that they had found the virus in the blood of a dead woman--the first known human casualty in Africa, which scientists have warned may be the region of the world least prepared to handle a mass outbreak.

Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon also have confirmed cases of the disease in poultry. A number of other African countries are testing dead birds--a process that has been slowed to an untenable extent by the need to send out to foreign laboratories, according to Nabarro.

Back in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration on Monday
proposed banning the use of human flu drugs in poultry in order to preserve
their effectiveness for people in case of a pandemic.

The drugs--including Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline PLC's Relenza--are not approved to treat or prevent flu in animals. Veterinarians can prescribe them legally, however, and the drugs as well as older ones are believed to be in use among chickens, turkeys, and ducks, regulators said.

Such use could make it easier for bird flu to mutate and resist treatment when people use the drugs, officials said.

U.S. poultry producers do not use the drugs, a spokesman for trade association the National Chicken Council, was quoted as saying in news reports.

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