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Avian influenza workshop series raises awareness in Pacific island countries

© UNICEF EAPRO/2007/Shrestha
Participants brainstorm during a workshop in Kiribati as part of a series of national advocacy workshops on avian and pandemic influenza in Pacific island nations.

By Natthinee Rodraksa

SUVA, Fiji, 8 November 2007 – Rossie Sailas travelled a long way across a strait in the Pacific Ocean from Fiji to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, to attend a workshop on avian and pandemic influenza.

“I don’t know what bird flu is,” said Ms. Sailas, a health manager from Malekula Island. “I may have heard of it from the radio but I am not really sure what it is and what it causes.”

This reaction is not uncommon in island countries such as Fiji. In order to raise awareness on bird flu in isolated areas, the UNICEF Regional Office in East Asia and the Pacific recently organized a series of national advocacy workshops on avian and pandemic influenza. The aim of the workshop series is to strengthen preparedness for an influenza pandemic or other communicable diseases on Kiribati, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The workshops are supported by the World Health Organization and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, with financial support from the Japanese Government.

© UNICEF EAPRO/2007/Shrestha
A research team member from the Fiji School of Medicine interviews schoolchildren rural Vanuatu to help identify behavioural factors that may pose potential risks of the transmission of avian and pandemic influenza.

Strengthening preparedness

During the workshop, more than 150 people  including members of the media and representatives from animal and human health sectors  received information about avian and pandemic influenza, as well as training in proper personal hygiene practices.

“This project was very timely. We are fortunate that UNICEF approached us,” said the Public Health Director for Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health, Len Tarivonda. “Considering what is happening in our neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, it is very important for us to be prepared if the virus comes to our shore.”

Recent UNICEF studies in the region have shown that approximately half of some population groups in countries such as Vanuatu and Kiribati have never heard of bird flu. While the South Pacific’s geographical isolation may make it less exposed to the virus, the remote region may also face risks of being further cut off should a pandemic occur.

Comprehensive strategy

In 1918, a serious influenza outbreak known as the Spanish Flu swept across the region. The impact was devastating, with approximately 5 per cent of the total population in the affected islands wiped out.

Today, UNICEF is supporting a comprehensive strategic initiative in order to change behaviours and ensure that this sort of tragedy is never repeated.

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



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