11 October 2006 The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is helping Thailand with a nationwide school-based campaign to protect children and their families from the spread of bird flu and the threat of its mutation into a deadly human pandemic.
The campaign, launched yesterday by the Education Ministry, covers all 40,000 elementary and secondary schools in the country, which has registered the third highest toll from the current H5N1 flu virus. It focuses on promoting frequent hand washing, rapid reporting of sick and dead poultry and other key behaviours.
Four million posters and pamphlets with awareness and prevention messages are being distributed along with a newly-developed curriculum to help ensure children understand the behaviours they need to practice to thwart the spread of H5N1, which has infected 25 people in Thailand, and killed 17 of them including 11 children under the age of 18.
Some 300,000 bars of soap will also be distributed to elementary schools. The posters, pamphlets and curriculum were developed with UNICEF support and funding from the Government of Japan. “At the same time, the campaign will help build the life skills children need to be prepared for and to respond to any type of emergency,” UNICEF Representative Inese Zalitis said.
Although more than 200 million birds have died worldwide from either the virus or preventive culling, there have so far been only 253 human cases, 148 of them fatal, since the current outbreak started in South-East Asia in December 2003, and these have been ascribed to contact with infected birds.
But experts fear the virus could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and, in a worst case scenario, unleashing a deadly human pandemic similar to the so-called Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 that is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide by the time it had run its course two years later.
Bird flu outbreaks have occurred in domestic poultry in at least 30 provinces in Thailand, the world’s fourth-largest poultry producer. Authorities have been forced to destroy millions of ducks and chickens to thwart the spread of the virus, resulting in severe economic losses for both large- and small-scale poultry farmers.
At Tuesday’s launch, UNICEF Representative Inese Zalitis said the campaign is aimed at limiting opportunities for the H5N1 virus to mutate by stopping its spread from poultry to humans, especially to children.
Since 2003, Viet Nam has registered the highest toll with 93 cases and 42 deaths, though no cases this year, followed by Indonesia with 69 cases, 52 of them fatal.