Issuing a series of recommendations after two days of discussions, the group of experts, including representatives from the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) said vaccinating animals could be one method along with culling and other priority measures to contain the spread of the virus.
The mass culling of flocks outside of infected sites in reaction to outbreaks might therefore be largely avoided and major damage to the livelihoods of rural households and national economies averted.
"We are confident that with broad international and regional collaboration in support of national efforts and using all available intervention tools, the crisis can be overcome and the risk to human health be minimised," said Joseph Domenech, chief of FAO's Animal Health Service.
"Culling infected flocks remains the recommended response when the disease is detected," he said. "Vaccination, when used together with other control measures, such as market and movement management, and good agricultural practices, offers a suitable means to support the suppression of the further spread of the virus."Experts emphasised the importance of protecting people directly in contact with infected or suspected birds.
The conference agreed that such targeted vaccination would help prevent animals falling ill and reduce the amount of virus present in the environment, the so-called 'viral load'.Minimising viral load will reduce the potential of avian influenza spreading to humans, if accompanied by strict control measures such as surveillance, elimination of infected birds, animal movement control and observation of basic hygiene in animal production.
Experts agreed that the vaccination plan, using a vaccine that meets OIE's international quality standards, should be accompanied by clear monitoring and surveillance of the rapidly changing situation.
"Things are changing daily and we need a concerted and co-ordinated response," FAO's Domenech said, adding that veterinary and medical authorities should report cases of outbreaks of avian influenza in their country to the OIE and WHO as soon as they are detected, and keep them informed of the evolving situation.
There was also agreement that vaccine manufacturers should have some stocks of relevant vaccines available, but that they would require a few months to gear up to produce sufficient amounts of the required vaccines.
The recommendations issued by the experts included the need for substantial international financial support to fund the intensified control measures required, including personal protective equipment, and the creation of country-specific guidelines and regional coordination programmes.
"These measures will not only help deal with the immediate crisis but will also lay the ground for capacity building programmes for national veterinary administrations. Priorities will be on surveillance and monitoring of animal diseases; these measures will also help to rebuild the damaged export markets in the region," said Bernard Vallat, director-general of OIE.