Swine flu could be a disaster for weak public health systems in developing countries
1 May 2009
A potential spread of swine flu to developing countries without adequate means to track the outbreak or to treat those infected could prove disastrous, says humanitarian agency World Vision.
A lack of access to basic, primary health care means communities in poor countries are more likely to suffer from such new viruses than those in developed nations, World Vision's emergency health specialists have warned as the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert to a phase 5 level.
Currently, confirmed and suspected swine flu cases are in countries with relatively mature public health systems. World Vision is concerned that the virus might spread to developing countries without adequate health provision, such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"The spread of the virus beyond Mexico is demonstrating that community-level health threats are actually global matters that affect us all," said Dr. Mesfin Teklu, emergency health director for World Vision International. "Still, it is where health systems and structures are inadequate that the disease is most likely to spread unchecked and take its greatest toll on lives."
"This swine flu, like avian influenza outbreaks before it, highlights a critical weakness in the way the world addresses health threats," said Teklu, speaking from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while participating in a regional pandemic preparedness meeting with other global public health leaders. "It underscores the need to invest in basic health care in developing nations, a crucial step to improving overall health while building capacity for a rapid and robust response when crises such as pandemics arise."
While effective high-level mechanisms exist to track the disease globally, vulnerable countries' ability to deal with a pandemic within their borders vary enormously — putting many at risk. Adequate health systems are essential to educate communities about simple, effective precautions and interventions that could save many lives, and to find, monitor and control rising health threats among their own populations.
World Vision's emergency specialists in Latin America foresee a raised threat of the virus spreading to less-developed countries with close tourism and trade relationships with Mexico. For the many impoverished households who rely on these sectors for their livelihoods, a wider outbreak would also deepen economic duress.
"We have great concern for our cities in Latin America, and particularly the shantytowns, that if this spreads, a million or more people could be affected across underdeveloped health systems that aren't equipped to care for them or contain the outbreak," said Aldo Pontecorvo, World Vision's regional emergency response director in Mexico City.
World Vision, a Christian humanitarian agency working in 100 countries, is poised to scale up its response if needed to the current outbreak in Mexico City, where it currently is counselling at-risk youth living on the streets about health precautions and providing them shelter and care.
Through established partnerships with the WHO and networks with other agencies, World Vision is planning for the possibility of further global spread. The agency is also educating its own staff worldwide on precautions, using comprehensive guidelines World Vision developed in recent years for international pandemic preparedness.
For more information on World Vision see www.worldvision.org/
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