Experts at an international conference on avian influenza are being told their governments must do more to ensure early detection of the virus if a global human pandemic is to be contained.
The warning has been given added urgency by confirmation this week of human bird flu deaths in Turkey, the first from the H5N1 virus to occur outside East Asia.
Some 130 delegates from 21 countries and organizations meeting here heard that the 17 days it takes on average for bird flu cases to be confirmed is too long to ensure containment of the disease.
Members of the World Health Organization's bird flu task force told the experts that early detection of widespread bird deaths - especially in rural areas - is the key to limiting a human pandemic.
The warnings came at the start of a two-day meeting on how to contain a pandemic should the H5N1 virus mutate into a form that can pass easily between humans.
Hitoshi Oshitani, a regional adviser to WHO on communicable disease surveillance and response, told reporters that rapid-response plans are needed: "At the moment, most of the countries do not include such a plan in their fundamental preparedness plans. We discussed this issue this afternoon, and some countries raised this issue, and they are keen to include such a plan in their pandemic preparedness plans."
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, of the WHO's Global Influenza Program in Geneva, says another human viral pandemic, like those that struck in the early and middle years of the last century, is inevitable even if it does not result from the H5 strains of avian influenza: "We expect that a pandemic will occur sometime in the future. It may be from H5, it may be from another virus. So all of these activities to prepare are not just for H5, they are really to prepare for the possibility of any virus causing a pandemic."
In East Asia, at least 76 people have died from the virus since 2003. Three deaths have been confirmed in Turkey.
The WHO bird flu experts say more must be done to convince rural populations of the risk of close contact with poultry. Many farmers are hesitant to alert officials about sick birds because they are not compensated if their poultry is ordered destroyed. The experts said farmers must realize that if their birds become sick, they should not think of immediately killing and eating them.
Many people in Southeast Asia raise chickens in or near their homes. Noting that fact, Thailand's deputy health secretary, Narongsakdi Aungkasuvapala, said that the most important challenge facing his country is improving ways to detect the disease.
More funding to combat the threat is expected to be pledged next week at a meeting of donors in Beijing.