The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is launching an appeal for $13.4 million for operations aimed at preventing the spread of bird flu from animals to humans. The agency says it plans to step up activities in remote areas of Africa and Asia.
Over the past few months, avian influenza has spread rapidly across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, carried by migratory birds.
There now are 47 countries affected by the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus. The virus has so far only spread rapidly among bird populations, and humans who have been infected are believed to have contracted the virus from birds. But public health experts fear the virus could mutate, and spread among humans, causing a deadly pandemic.
Public health officials around the world have been working to prevent that. The International Red Cross says it plans to scale-up its bird flu operations in 26 countries, mainly in Asia and Africa.
Red Cross Public Health Emergency Chief Adelheid Marschang says 50,000 national volunteers will be specially trained to deal with this crisis. She says, they will inform people in remote rural communities of the risks, and measures they must take to prevent bird flu from spreading to humans.
"This is very critical," said Dr. Marschang. "If remote, vulnerable communities who live in close proximity to poultry are not reached, then avian influenza will continue to spread. It is not possible to control migratory birds, and this could lead to more human infections."
Dr. Marschang says there is a vast network of trained Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, trained to go to the most far flung places, and take the prevention message to those most at risk. They include small-scale poultry farmers, backyard poultry owners, rural traders, housewives and children.
The World Health Organization says fewer than 200 human cases of bird flu have been reported. Of those, 110 people have died. It says most of these cases have occurred in rural households, where people have come in close contact with infected poultry.
Dr. Marschang says the volunteers will inform local communities on proper handling of poultry, and on early detection of human cases. They also will educate people on good hygienic practices, and distribute protective materials.
"The volunteers that are giving the messages are coming from those communities," added Dr. Marschang. "They are part of the communities in the whole country… That is exactly the strength that many of the volunteers we work through come from affected communities. They know the concerns. They can translate and talk in the languages of the communities, in simple terms. They know the habits and the local traditions, and they can express precisely what it is that has to be done."
The Red Cross says West and Central Africa is in a particularly vulnerable position. It says special care will be given in developing activities and responses geared to meeting the challenges there.