UN to recommend wider use of bird flu vaccine

Bangkok - Experts meeting in Thailand's capital will consider increased use of bird flu vaccines for chickens across Asia to try to tackle a resurgence of the deadly disease, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Wednesday.

The chief of the United Nations agency's animal health service said it was shifting its position to back a wider use of injections to fight a virus that has left 24 people and 200 million chickens dead.

"The FAO is going to give revised guidelines and we will be in some ways supporting more vaccination than before," Joseph Domenech said at a meeting here of top veterinary officials from Southeast Asia.

"They won't protect 100 percent against infection, and some vaccinated animals could carry the virus. But they will not contribute to outbreaks."

The FAO has recommended vaccination policies "where appropriate and practical" since the height of the crisis in February, but several nations including Thailand, the world's fourth largest poultry exporter, have banned vaccines until more thorough research is conducted.

Domenech acknowledged concerns that vaccinating large numbers of chickens could expose humans to healthy-looking birds that carried the lethal H5N1 virus, but said the potential for endangering humans was minimal.

Key poultry populations that would be targeted include hens laying eggs for human consumption and young birds needed to replenish devastated poultry stocks, he said.

Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and China have all reported new cases after the worst of the outbreaks of the lethal H5N1 form of the virus earlier this year that left eight dead in Thailand and 16 in Vietnam and crippled poultry industries.

The outbreaks prompted the European Union this week to extend its ban on chicken imports from nine countries until at least December as the economic effects continued to be felt across Asia.

The EU has also banned poultry imports from any country where chickens had been vaccinated against bird flu, and there was no immediate indication it would change its policy in the light of new planned FAO guidelines.

Indonesia has carried out a vaccination programme to combat the spread of the virus in several areas. About 21 million birds had been inoculated in 17 provinces by June, the FAO reported.

"There will be more animals sick, more outbreaks, and more sources of the virus if there is no vaccine," said Domenech.

However, he said there were concerns about the cost of the programme and the difficulty in getting it properly administered in remote rural areas. - Sapa-AFP

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