ROME – Concerted international action has been successful in eliminating the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus from poultry in almost all 63 countries it infected at the peak of the world outbreak in 2006, but it persists in five nations. As a result, H5N1 poses a continuing threat to global animal and human health, said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (F.A.O).

Speaking before the opening of an International Ministerial Conference on Animal and Pandemic Influenza in Hanoi on Monday, Dr Juan Lubroth, F.A.O.’s chief veterinary officer, said despite the considerable success achieved against H5N1, it was entrenched in Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China.

The Hanoi ministerial conference is intended to marshal international cooperation against future infectious diseases drawing on experience gained in responses to pandemic A/H1N1 influenza and H5N1 avian influenza plus seek to advance the U.N.-led “One World, One Health” Strategic Framework for reducing the risks of emerging infectious diseases.

“The progressive control of H5N1 in such countries remains an international priority,” Mr. Lubroth said. “Though public attention shifted to the H1N1 influenza pandemic for most of 2009, H5N1 continues to be a serious menace.

“We should not forget that it has killed 292 humans, killed or forced the culling of more than 260 million birds, caused an estimated $20 billion of economic damage across the globe and devastated livelihoods at the family-farm level,” he added. “As long as it is present in even one country, there is still a public health risk to be taken seriously.”

F.A.O. said the H5N1 strain of avian influenza remains established in places where tens of millions of free-ranging domestic ducks are present, significant industrial broiler production exists together with live bird markets, and where human and animal densities are high.

“Where those circumstances are present, finding effective solutions remains a major challenge,” Mr. Lubroth said.

The very process of economic and population growth, he noted, including intensified agricultural production, fostered the emergence of new infectious diseases as ever larger numbers of animals and humans occupied delicate ecosystems.

“It is clear that humans will continue to become exposed to a variety of influenza viruses originating in animals, and even if the severity and magnitude of resulting outbreaks remains unpredictable we know that pressures are building,” he said.

Mr. Lubroth added that F.A.O., WHO and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (O.I.E.), which led international efforts against H5N1, should take a leading role in finding a definitive solution to the problem. At the same time, the three agencies should also collaborate to strengthen international defences against emerging infectious diseases.

“We must stop hopping from one crisis situation to the next,” Mr. Lubroth said. “We have to do a better job of forecasting and monitoring the drivers that promote the emergence and spread of diseases, and institute improved risk management. We must be able to tackle problems at source before they become regional, continental or global threats.”