Monday, April 27, 2009

Outbreak of Swine Flu grips the world

I have been in crisis mode all weekend and today. Busy providing support and guidance to our global membership and operations on how to communicate about the emergency of the so-called swine flu in Mexico. As I write, cases are now confirmed in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Spain with many other reported cases from around the world.

We can also imagine that surveillance and monitoring capacities in developing countries will mean that alot of swine flu cases may go undetected. It has been a very interesting experience working closely with our health experts, liasing with the World Health Organization (WHO), all in an attempt to get our messaging right and to provide good support to our member Red Cross and Red Crescent around the world.

At the start of such a potential pandemic it is generally advised to exercise caution in your public communication and not to contribute to any destabilizing over-reaction or panic due to sensational messages. At times like this it is usually advisable to stick to the science and leave the hyperbole to the tabloids.

At times like this it is also gratifying to see how crucial and effective organizations such as WHO and CDC are in providing the knowledge and direction for a global response to what is in reality a potentially severe and life-threthening pandemic which will be extremely difficult to stop.

This is the gist of our public communication issued first thing today in Geneva - alot more expected on this topic which has truly gripped the media and public's imagination.

IFRC: Swine flu outbreak is “a situation of immediate and serious concern”
27 April 2009

The confirmed Swine Flu outbreak in Mexico, and the reported cases in the United States, Canada, Brazil, The United Kingdom, France, Spain, Israel, Australia and New Zealand, is a situation of serious concern for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The IFRC shares the World Health Organization’s analysis that there is a potential for swine flu to develop into a global pandemic affecting a much larger geographical area of the world.

“This is a situation of immediate and serious concern,” says Bekele Geleta, Secretary General of the IFRC, “Our national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, supported by IFRC health specialists, and working closely with their governments at the national level, are on full global alert. We will spare no resources in tackling this threat full on.”

In Mexico, the most affected country so far, Mexican Red Cross put its volunteers from 486 local branches in high alert, working closely with the authorities to limit the spread of the disease.

The worldwide network of Red Cross and Red Crescent has invested heavily in recent years in pandemic preparedness and provides a solid foundation at the community level to expedite critical alerts and actions. This is a key contribution to a well coordinated response at the local level that is in line with global priorities as well as existing practices and recommendations at the national level.

In addition, the IFRC has the ability to swiftly mobilize well-trained volunteers based in communities at risk which is a vital capability when dealing with pandemic threats. “At this moment in time we are on full alert” according to Dominique Praplan, head of the IFRC’s health department in Geneva, “and are preparing for all eventualities”.

“The best case scenario right now would be for national level epidemics to be managed which would lessen the likelihood of a widespread global pandemic. The worst case scenario is for the epidemic to develop into a severe, potentially life-threatening pandemic. If this transpires,” says Praplan, “the IFRC will apply the full vigour and commitment of its resources and expertise to join a global effort”.

If the threat of pandemics is to be effectively reduced it requires the international community to work in partnership. The IFRC works in close coordination with the World Health Organization, other United Nations agencies and with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at regional and global levels, to ensure a complementary approach.