U.N. experts are warning that Africa is a likely new location for the emergence of bird flu, and they say the spread of the virus onto the African continent could have devastating consequences unless governments move quickly to improve health and surveillance.
The warning came this week from world health experts taking part in a conference co-hosted by China. The conference was called to raise money to fight the spread of the H5N1 strain of bird flu.
The virus, which first appeared in East Asia, has recently begun infecting birds and humans in Turkey. David Nabarro, the United Nations Coordinator for Avian Influenza, said it is difficult to say where the H5N1 virus will appear next - but he said Africa is a likely location this spring, as wild birds begin their annual migration.
"I can't say and nor can anybody else say where it's going to go next. We suspect almost certainly Africa, because of the pathways of the migrating birds," he said. "But let's make sure that we don't get overly predictive, and instead stress to every country in the world: Get prepared for the bird flu. Get prepared for the human flu. You will reduce suffering. You will reduce loss of lives, and you will reduce the economic consequences."
Officials with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization said countries in Africa deserve special attention.
One FAO official told delegates in Beijing this week that if the disease were to become rooted in the African countryside, the consequences for a continent already devastated by hunger and poverty could be "truly catastrophic."
Health experts called on governments around the world to boost veterinary services by providing political support, as well as technical assistance and funding.
The conference in Beijing this week raised nearly $2 billion in pledges - the largest of which came from the United States.
Bush administration officials say most of the funding will target endemic areas of Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Thailand, too, has been hard-hit by the disease. However, officials said a significant amount would fund programs in Africa.
H5N1 bird flu has killed about 80 people since 2003 - most of them in East Asia. Four confirmed fatalities in Turkey raised international concerns that the disease is growing - at least in geographic terms.
Most, if not all, of the people infected have gotten the virus from animals. Scientists worry that the current strain might mutate to one that is easily passed from human to human, raising the prospects of a global pandemic.