Farming and health experts from dozens of African countries as well as donor organisations and top UN officials were set to meet in Gabon on Monday for three days of talks aimed at clinching a continental response to bird flu.
|Chickens are on sale in the main market in Kabul, 16 March 2006 (AFP Photo)|
If the cause of the Egyptan woman's death is confirmed, she will be the first human fatality in Africa of H5N1, which has killed about 100 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003.
The meeting in Libreville is being organised by six United Nations organisations and the government of Gabon.
Food and Agriculture Organisation Director General Jacques Diouf, World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Africa Luis Gomes Sambo, his UN Development Programme (UNDP) counterpart Gilbert Houngbo and UN bird flu envoy David Nabarro are among the officials expected to take part.
"The situation on the continent is pretty alarming because this animal epidemic has a direct impact on human health," the UNDP's representative in Gabon, Bintou Djibou, told a news conference.
"We must do everything to contain the virus and stop it turning into a pandemic over the next few months," she added.
Officially, H5N1 has only hit four African countries: Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Egypt, but few experts really believe that's the whole story.
"As an epidemiologist, I can assure you that many more that four countries are affected," said Djiou's opposite number in the WHO, Andre Ndikuyeze.
"These are the only countries who dared announce their results," he added.
"Unfortunately, others haven't been so brave and have not taken the the necessary steps, which is another factor in the spread of the epidemic."
As widely pointed out by numerous experts, bird flu poses a particularly worrying threat for Africa, which lacks the basic healthcare and infrastructure of the developed world, and where poultry and humans tend to live in close proximity.
Also, any large scale slaughtering of poultry, the best weapon against the virus, is bound to have severe economic and nutritional consequences in an impoverished continent where the chicken plays such an important role in diet.
"We must plan the response urgently," insisted Ndikuyeze. "We must inform peope, share experiences and harmonize plans for prevention and response," he added.
"This conference will also allow us to make a fresh appeal for resources," said Binto.
"African countries hardly have any means. We are expecting a lot from various donors and development partners," she added.