"A targeted vaccination campaign for poultry at risk of being infected by the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus may be required in heavily affected countries to control the further spread of the epidemic," the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a statement on Thursday.

  

"Vaccinating animals could be one method along with culling and other priority measures to contain the spread of the virus," according to the statement, issued following a two-day meeting in Rome attended by some 40 animal health experts.

 

The gathering, hosted by the FAO and with experts from the WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the US Centre for Disease Control, issued a list of recommendations on how to contain and eradicate the disease.

 

Warning

  

The WHO has warned that the bird flu could potentially kill millions if it is combined with a human influenza virus.

  

Vietnam on Thursday announced its 12th human fatality from the bird flu sweeping Asia, bringing the total death toll to 17.

  

The experts concluded that the mass culling outside of infected areas could be "largely avoided" and damage to livelihoods and economies averted through the vaccination programme.

 

"Culling infected flocks remains the recommended response when the disease is detected"

Joseph Domenech,
chief, FAO animal health service

They said it would probably take "a few months" for affected countries to produce sufficient amounts of the required vaccines and that the campaign should provide for monitoring and surveillance.

  

"Culling infected flocks remains the recommended response when the disease is detected," said Joseph Domenech, chief of the FAO's animal health service.

  

The experts said targeted vaccination would help prevent animals falling ill and reduce the "viral load", or the amount of virus present in the environment.

  

Reducing the viral load will draw down the potential for avian influenza spreading among humans.

  

The FAO estimates the number of chickens culled so far at around 50 million. Countries where mass cullings are ongoing include Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China and Taiwan.

  

Only Thailand and Vietnam among 10 Asian countries with the virus have reported human fatalities.