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IFRC Says Past Holds Lessons for Swine Flu Outbreak

The International Federal Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is calling the swine flu outbreak a "situation of immediate and serious concern." Dr. Tammam Aloudat, senior health and emergencies officer for the IFRC in Geneva says, "It certainly is serious enough to raise consideration. What we have on our hands now and what we've been hearing from the world experts…is that we have new strains of the virus."

The concern is these new strains could mutate. Dr. Aloudat explains it as "the mutation of an influenza virus that is unknown for the immune system of people and that has the ability to transmit sustainably from one person to the other."

He says it has the potential to become a bigger problem worldwide. Asked whether health experts saw signs of the swine flu outbreak, he says, "Certainly an event that is rapidly evolving is not something that is possible to predict in time and place. However…for the past…three years, the International Federation and others have been looking at the possibility of the development of a pandemic of influenza. The alarm bells had been raised when the avian influenza cases were happening in Southeast Asia. And after a very short while, (we) and others have seen it's not necessarily about a certain strain. It's about the possibility of an influenza virus, unknown to humans, to infect people and hence the possibility of developing into a worldwide outbreak of the disease, a pandemic, as it's called," he says.

Aloudat says doctors, scientists and health officials can look to the past for lessons on flu pandemics and make preparations.

"First, you learn the lessons of history. We have witnessed three pandemics in the past century. The more significant, big one is the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and then twice again the Asian flu in the 50's and 60's. Those two were much milder, but they give us now enough basic information that we expect can be generalized for any pandemic of influenza," he says.

That's despite the fact that the world has changed a great deal since 1918 and the pandemic that killed millions of people. At the time, modes of transportation were not as readily available as they are today, meaning the flu could spread more easily today through international travel.

"This assessment and lessons we have learned gave us the ability to use our national societies. The Red Cross and Red Crescent (is) in 186 countries…. Volunteers, 90 million of them, are in their communities. They promote health. They promote hygiene. They help people overcome their problems. And those exactly are the volunteers that we have been working with to build the capacities needed for us to spread the messages."

He says that if there is a global flu outbreak, most people will not be able to get the finest treatment or care. "What remains is for communities to learn what prevents disease, how to deal with cases in their local settings and how to minimize the morbidity and mortality of such (a) crisis."

While developed countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada and others are gearing up for a larger outbreak, how will developing countries do? The IFRC doctor says, "Certainly, not having all the resources needed makes many countries vulnerable to not only to influenza, but to many other health threats. However, this is exactly why those advantages that those communities and those countries have should be used better."

He gives an example. "Over the past two years, the Humanitarian Pandemic Preparedness, or, as it's dubbed, H2P, has been working with many countries – about 10 countries in Africa. Some of them are quite advanced in preparing for the pandemic, such as in Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Mali, among others. Keeping in mind that if a pandemic develops beyond a certain point – of course I'm not saying at all that this will happen – we have put our biggest emphasis on countries that are more vulnerable and that have the capacities or need to develop the capacities for communities and localities to be able to respond effectively," he says.