Your Excellencies Ministers of Health, Ministers of Agriculture,
Regional Director WHO SEARO,
Regional Representative OIE,
Senior Health and Agriculture Officials, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to be here today. On behalf of FAO I would like to thank the Government of India and WHO for co-hosting this very important meeting.
From the outset I want to emphasise that FAO echoes the global concern that H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has the potential to lead to a human influenza pandemic, and recognizes the potential impact of a human pandemic that could arise from this virus. Considerable efforts have been made to prepare for a rapid global response in case a pandemic virus emerges and leads to quick spread of the disease across national borders.
While the main concern at the moment is on the threat of a human pandemic, there is, however, the real and serious situation of the disease occurring in poultry which has spread across a large part of the globe, affecting over 50 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
The direct and indirect economic impact of Avian Influenza is in fact already being felt. Since the two and half years of the present Avian Influenza emergency, some 200 million poultry have been culled, and the disease has resulted in accumulated losses of US$10 billion in Southeast Asia alone. The serious consequences of AI outbreaks on the income level of farmers and rural communities as a result of drastic drops in poultry prices and consumption have already affected the livelihoods of millions of small farmers and is of great concern.
FAO has been in the forefront of the international effort in the fight against HPAI. In the Asia-Pacific region, FAO, using its own resources, has initiated over a dozen Technical Cooperation Projects (TCP) to deliver training, capacity building and technical guidelines, to provide expert advice on disease control programmes and strategies, to foster research projects in areas of epidemiology and vaccination, as well as to promote a regional cooperation network on disease diagnosis, control and prevention.
At the moment FAO is managing a global portfolio of projects funded by a range of donors – to the amount of US$62 million with an additional US$30 million more pledged – with strategies focusing on strengthening the capacity of countries to respond to the disease either in situations where infections have occurred or where there is a threat of its introduction.
It is recognized across the region that HPAI will be with us for some years to come. The re-emergence last week of H5 in the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Thailand indicates the need for continuous vigilance about the persistent threat. The disease containment effort has been more regular and systematic in some places than others, in part reflecting investment priorities or availability. In order to be able to effectively control the disease, continued investment is required. FAO believes that HPAI control should be seen as a public good issue and should be treated with high priority nationally and internationally when it comes to funding. In this connection, the high-level political engagement of all countries in dealing with HPAI is imperative.
What is needed is the capacity to be able to rapidly identify the disease outbreak, have an immediate reporting and confirmation system to rapidly contain the disease and institute measures to prevent recurrence so that the people affected can get their lives back to normal as soon as possible. Ensuring this response capacity is a costly but necessary investment.
It is also imperative that we continue to act firmly and effectively to stop HPAI wherever and whenever it appears. Ways of doing so vary from fundamental tools in reducing the virus loads in the environment to ensuring the livelihoods of the people. FAO is currently working with governments to try to maximize the outcome of disease control efforts by stressing removal of the virus at its source, that is, removing the infected birds. In some cases, vaccination of non-infected birds is a useful additional tool to minimise the risk of infection.
We consider that policies for rehabilitation of the well-being of the people affected by outbreaks, and mechanisms to reduce the impact of the disease, are important and necessary. We also acknowledge that these interventions are expensive and call for international communities to continue their financial and technical support to developing countries in their efforts to develop and implement effective control and prevention strategies.
At this stage, we in the animal health sector have the responsibility to control the disease at the source in order to reduce the impact among small producers and prevent transmission of the disease to humans, so as to avoid a potential pandemic. I would like to reiterate that FAO is committed to working with governments and other UN and international agencies such as WHO and OIE to this end.
I wish all Ministers with public health and animal health responsibilities a productive meeting and every success in dealing with this important problem.