We Must Remain Vigilant, Warns Bird Flu Expert

EGYPT - Dr Pierre Duplessis, Special Representative for International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Secretary-General for avian and human influenza gave this warning at the recent ministerial conference in Sharm El Sheikh.
calendar icon 28 October 2008
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Dr Pierre Duplessis, IFRC's Special Representative of the Secretary-General for avian and human influenza

The 6th Ministerial Conference on avian and pandemic influenza was held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, from October 24-26. reports IFRC. Representatives from 140 States as well as from 26 international organisations looked at possible ways to contain the outbreak of avian influenza (AI) more efficiently and to further strengthen global contingency planning to prevent a potential human influenza pandemic.

The IFRC, together with the Egyptian Red Crescent, was invited to address the conference. The IFRC has been very active on what is commonly called "avian flu" over the last few years, basing its action on the necessity of "early warning, early action".

Dr Pierre Duplessis, IFRC's Special Representative of the Secretary-General for avian and human influenza was asked about the threat.

Q: Dr Duplessis, what was the main message you carried to participants at the Sharm El Sheik Conference?
A: We must remain vigilant. Although the press does not mention the threat anymore, the influenza virus H5N1 in birds is still very active. The threat of a mutation - be it this virus or another influenza one - is still there according to all experts. It is expected this new virus will trigger a pandemic, i.e. an influenza epidemic worldwide, which means millions of people will die, and millions of others will suffer.
The role of civil society is essential in terms of education and prevention, both in an avian influenza infection in birds as well as in an animal or human pandemic. These activities should take place at the community level and this is recognised by most governments. The IFRC has a global network of volunteers and thus accesses the most remote communities. Combined with our auxiliary status to public authorities in humanitarian matters, we have a unique and important role to play both in avian and pandemic influenza. Finally, my message to the conference was to think long-term and to include these preparedness efforts in current programmes.

Q: Why is it so crucial to involve local communities in prevention and preparedness activities?
A: First, the action is and will always be at the community level. This is the case with infection in domestic poultry. Twenty-five per cent of the world's chickens are raised in China, with that number reaching 14 billion! Most of those chicken are raised by small or backyard farmers. The numbers are similar in Egypt, another large producer of domestic birds, in roof and backyard farming. Two million chickens are raised every day and 30% of the population are family poultry raisers. It is clear prevention activities in the communities are key.
Regarding pandemic preparedness, many, if not almost all countries, will have to deal with the infection without proper medical care services, medication, vaccines and essential services. All scenarios point to communities being on their own. We believe Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will have the biggest impact in terms of lives saved and preventing infection by working with communities, first by having them well-prepared - which is what we are currently working on- and then by implementing specific community-based interventions if and when the pandemic hits.

Q: The threat of avian influenza developing into a human influenza pandemic has not materialized in any way. Do we still really have reason to worry and prepare for a possible human pandemic?
A: As I said, the infection in birds is still spreading and some countries cannot eradicate the disease in spite of putting a lot of money and efforts into it. The World Health Organization is keeping its alert level at 3, which means that we are in a pre-pandemic mode with animal-to-human and human-to-human transmission, the latter being very rare and unsustainable. But transmission does exist. Influenza is a disease carried by birds and people depend a lot on poultry for protein intake. We know just how big the poultry industry is and how important the migratory paths of wild birds are.
It is not because the media do not write stories anymore about pandemic and bird flu that the public should believe there is no threat. There are usually one to three pandemics per century. We had one in 1918, one in 1957 and one in 1968. It's now been 40 years without one. The alarm bell is ringing.

Q: What are Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies doing exactly to contain avian influenza and prepare for a possible human pandemic? How does the IFRC support them?
A: Our role focuses on health education, prevention, participation in surveillance measures and psycho-social support to name the most important activities. It may be more or it may be less depending on the agreement with the government in each country. The work done by volunteers on avian flu is very similar to disaster management and health emergency preparedness, mitigation and response.
In our pandemic preparedness work, we are working in partnership with three major NGOs (Academy for Educational Development, CORE Group, InterAction) to address three areas of intervention in which we think we will have the biggest positive impact: health, food security and livelihoods. Our actions are complementary and we are targeting 20 countries for early implementation.

Q: Do activities related to avian influenza also help prevent other types of health challenges?
A: Indeed. And it has to be so. We do not want to create another set of different programmes, request Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to absorb new skills, and impose upon them an extra management and implementation activities. Responding to a huge outbreak of avian flu or preparing for a pandemic is like responding to or preparing for a major disaster: it is the same approach and uses more or less the same tools. It supports organisational development, helps build capacity and leaves a legacy. It is crucial to see this as long-term and integrated action.

Further Reading

- You can visit the Avian Flu page by clicking here.
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