The World Health Organization says it is sending a team of international experts to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar to help combat an outbreak of flu which already has killed several hundred people. WHO says nearly 5,000 cases of influenza and more than 300 deaths have been reported in the past two months.
A spokesman for the World Health Organization, Ian Simpson, says a team of disease specialists from around the world will arrive in Madagascar next week.
"They will be giving the government some advice on managing this outbreak and then they will also be looking at the epidemiology, the history, if you like, of this outbreak," he said. "Why it happened in this way and why it spread so quickly. And, seeing if lessons can be learned from that for Madagascar and for other developing countries because clearly the disease, which we believe does affect many peoples' lives in developing countries, but is not very well recognized and, therefore, very little is done about it."
Samples taken from some of the victims show that the disease is type A influenza, a particularly virulent virus. The epidemic is located in the southern province of Fianarantsoa, a remote, poor part of the country. The illness causes headaches, sore throats and high fever. Mr. Simpson says that if left untreated, people could develop pneumonia and die.
"We can only suppose that one of the reasons why fatalities are so high is that this particular virus has not existed in Madagascar or has not existed in this form in Madagascar," he said. "And, that may be why people appear to have such low levels of resistance. I would emphasize that the main reason why people are dying is simply because they do not have access to the right kind of health care and because flu is a killer."
The World Health Organization says people are dying from the flu because there are few health care facilities in Madagascar. Also, it notes most of the victims are poor and undernourished which makes them more vulnerable to disease. WHO Spokesman Simpson says the number of cases of flu is falling. And, this, he says is a hopeful sign that the epidemic might be going away.