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Protecting the Pacific against avian influenza

© UNICEF Fiji /Siddartha Shrestha
The participants brainstormed during a group work session at the National Advocacy Workshop on Avian and Pandemic Influenza recently held in Kiribati.

By Natthinee Rodraksa

Vanuatu, November 2007— Despite the panic it triggers periodically throughout East Asia since the first known outbreaks in 2003, avian influenza ruffles few feathers in the Pacific. But that may be because no one knows about it.

“I may have heard of it from the radio but am not really sure what it is and what it causes,” said Rossie Sailas, a public health manager from Norsup town on Malekula Island, Vanuatu, after arriving in Port Vila, the country’s capital, for a workshop to learn more about the potential of bird flu, as it is commonly known around the world.

UNICEF Pacific in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community recently organized workshops on avian and pandemic influenza in three South Pacific island countries (Kiribati and the Solomon Islands along with Vanautu) to inform more than 150 officials and staff from animal and human health departments, national disaster management offices, the army and NGOs as well as journalists about the potential of the disease and the need for basic personal hygiene practices. Similar activities are planned also for Fiji and Samoa.

With financial support from the Japanese Government, these workshops are among a series of activities in an ongoing regional initiative to strengthen pandemic prevention and preparedness efforts in five South Pacific countries as well as their ability to protect their populations from other communicable diseases. The objective is to assist governments in developing strategic communication plans that target specific behaviour changes that can prevent the spread of avian influenza in birds and infection in humans. These exercises will also enhance the longer-term capabilities in public health preparedness and response in those countries.

© UNICEF Fiji /Siddartha Shrestha
Representatives from animal and human health sectors as well as the media in Kiribati have been trained for the first time about avian and pandemic influenza and basic personal hygiene practices.

“This project is very timely,” said Len Tarivonda, the Public Health Director in Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health. “Some of us may have heard about bird flu from the media, but a lot of people are still not sure what it is. Considering what is happening in our neigbouring countries, such as Indonesia, it is very important for us to be prepared.”

In some countries in East and South-East Asia, highly pathogenic avian influenza, caused by the H5N1 virus, has become endemic in bird populations. Avian influenza rarely affects humans, but if it does, it can be fatal.  As of 31 October, there were 333 cases of avian influenza in humans, of which 204 died. 

“We hope to learn from this exercise and apply the methodology for prevention and preparedness efforts for other infectious diseases in the future,” Tarivonda added.

Recent baseline studies indicate that approximately half of some population groups in some South Pacific island countries, such as Vanuatu and Kiribati, have never heard of bird flu and have no clue what it is, let alone being aware of the risk that it could potentially spawn a human pandemic.

© UNICEF Fiji /Siddartha Shrestha
The baseline research is part of a baseline research on avian and pandemic influenza to identify behavioural factors that pose potential risk of the transmission of avian and pandemic influenza.

As yet, there have been no confirmed reports of avian influenza on any of the five island countries (which consist of more than 500 small islands and atolls) in the project. However, some animal health experts believe that the virus most likely has arrived. Because of the poor surveillance and reporting systems, the central authorities may not be aware of it. There were reports of unusual poultry deaths in some remote villages in Papua New Guinea, which borders Indonesia, in July this year. But there were no conclusive findings. It is also possible that the South Pacific’s geographical isolation may protect it from the H5N1 virus that has become entrenched elsewhere.

These islands have experienced a human pandemic before, such as the Spanish Flu that swept the region in 1918, killing overall some 5 per cent of affected islands’ population – and was attributed to a bird virus. That pandemic hit hardest in Samoa, killing around 22 per cent of its population within weeks. Mass graveyards of Spanish Flu victims are still present in several of the Pacific countries.

Thus UNICEF and its partners are not trusting the region’s isolation and instead are working to help these countries protect themselves in the event of an outbreak.        



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