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FAO urges cash-strapped governments to keep up guard against bird flu

ROME (Reuters) - Governments must not allow financial constraints caused by the current global economic crisis to stop them keeping their guard up against avian flu, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Tuesday.

The agency, one of three international bodies that lead the global response to bird flu, warned of a repeat of the 2006 outbreaks, when the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus killed 79 people around the world and sparked fears of a pandemic.

Investment was vital to prevent a repeat of such a crisis, the FAO said.

"I am worried because in the current climate governments are unable to keep up their guard," FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth said in a statement. "I see inaction in the face of very real threats to the health of animals and people."

Scientists fear avian flu, which is carried by water fowl and poultry and can be transmitted between birds, and from birds to people, could cause a catastrophe if it mutates to be able to spread between humans.

The virus has infected more than 600 people since it was first detected in Hong Kong in 1997 and is usually fatal. Bird deaths from the disease or culling cost economies $20 billion between 2003 and 2011, FAO said.

The UN agency, whose task is to coordinate the global response to outbreaks of avian flu in animals, said that while progress had been made in fighting the virus, outbreaks continue to occur in Asia and the Middle East.

The FAO also warned against a growing threat from Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), a highly contagious disease that can decimate flocks of sheep and goats, which is expanding in sub-Saharan Africa.

A vaccine against the disease is available but tight finances, a lack of political will and poor planning mean PPR continues to spread, the agency warned.

(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)