However, WHO believes that co-operation is the key to averting catastrophe. "With SARS, we learned that only by working together can we control emerging global public health threats," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO director-general.
"Now, we confront another threat to human health and we must reaffirm existing collaboration and form new ones. At the international level, WHO, FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) and OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) stand together in close working relationship to provide the necessary guidance to Member States."
Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a threat to public health because, if it circulates long enough in humans and farm animals, there is an increased risk that it may evolve into a pandemic influenza strain, which could cause disease worldwide. In addition, avian influenza is an economic disaster for the poultry industry as well as small poultry farmers.
The focus of FAO, OIE and WHO activities is to avert a human and animal pandemic.
"We have a brief window of opportunity before us to eliminate that threat," said Dr Jacques Diouf, FAO director-general.
"Farmers in affected areas urgently need to kill infected and exposed animals and require support to compensate for such losses. This will represent a huge cost, especially to struggling economies and small farmers. The international community has a stake in the success of these efforts and poorer nations will need help."
FAO and OIE also called for a tight and effective control of animal movement in affected areas. Farm workers need to be protected during the culling operations by wearing protective clothing. In addition, vaccines need to be supplied. Farmers, especially backyard farmers, need to be supported for losses that will surely be significant.
The threat from avian influenza is now well understood. Unlike SARS, diagnostic tests already exist, as do effective, although costly, antivirals for humans. While it is challenging, research is already well underway on the development of a human vaccine against this strain.
Officials said any such protection was probably still some six months away, but that they hoped soon to have a prototype of the bird flu virus that could serve as the basis for a vaccine. Stressing there was no sign the avian flu, which has killed eight people in Vietnam and Thailand, could be transmitted from person to person, senior officials said the aim was to be ready for the worst.
"This is a serious global threat to human health," said Dr. Lee Jong-wook. "But we have faced several emerging infectious diseases in the past. This time, we face something we can possibly control before it reaches global proportions if we work cooperatively and share needed resources. We must begin this hard, costly work now."