BANGKOK, Thailand – The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (search) moved toward loosening its stand on vaccinating fowl against the bird flu virus, which ravaged Asia's poultry industry earlier this year and killed 24 people in the region.
Veterinarians and scientists from 10 Asian countries meeting in Bangkok (search) accepted FAO-recommended guidelines on curbing the disease, He Changchui, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, said Friday.
The new guidelines give affected nations more leeway to use vaccinations than the FAO had previously suggested, said Joseph Domenech, chief of the agency's Animal Health Service.
International health and agricultural authorities had earlier promoted culling -- which is faster than vaccinations -- mainly due to the epidemic's massive scale and quick spread.
Experts had also worried that vaccination could present problems such as controlling the vaccine's quality and availability. There are also more labor costs, since each bird has to be vaccinated twice.
The FAO has changed its stance because it now has more evidence that ducks and wild birds spread the disease, raising the overall risk factor for animals and humans alike -- so every viable option should be used -- Domenech said.
"We recognize that the virus will circulate for many years," Domenech said, adding that the new guidelines still call for culling and sanitary measures as the first line of defense.
The FAO "is not pushing vaccination, but recognizes it as an option," he said Friday in a speech closing the three-day Bangkok meeting.
About 100 million chickens died or were culled when bird flu (search) swept Asia earlier this year. It also infected some humans, killing eight in Thailand and 16 in Vietnam.
Earlier this month, the virus resurfaced in poultry in Thailand, Vietnam, China and Indonesia.
Domenech said quality control and costs were still important issues when considering vaccination, although availability was not a problem.
Vaccination is "still considered not an easy way," he said.
FAO spokesman Diderick de Vleeschauwer said the draft guidelines, approved in principle at the Bangkok meeting, were still several stages from official adoption.
They will first be submitted to the FAO's Rome headquarters, then forwarded to the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health -- better known by its French acronym OIE -- which will have the final say on the guidelines' acceptance.
De Vleeschauwer said he expected the new guidelines to be published at the end of August.
Participants at the Bangkok meeting also agreed to launch a Southeast Asia veterinary network to strengthen the campaign against bird flu, he said.
Representatives came to the meeting from Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, East Timor and Vietnam.