Avian influenza

Two types of influenza have made headline news in recent years – bird flu and swine flu.

Avian influenza (H5N1) or ‘bird flu’ was originally identified in 1997. It is a contagious disease of animals caused by viruses that normally infect only birds and, less commonly, pigs. H5N1 viruses are highly species-specific, but on rare occasions have crossed the species barrier to infect humans.

The last HN51 outbreak peaked in 2003 and has affected wild birds and poultry in more than 65 countries. The H5N1 virus has crossed from birds to humans, but is not yet spreading easily from one person to another.  However, H5N1 or another bird flu strain could evolve into a more transferable virus and cause a human pandemic.

In June 2009 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic of influenza A (H1N1) or ‘swine flu’.

IFRC response

Given the two existing threats – the spread of avian influenza and the human H1N1 influenza pandemic – two parallel approaches have been set up by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to:

  • help communities become more aware of the avian and swine influenza threats and know which preventive measures can be taken
  • enable National Societies to play a lead role in handling of the effects of a pandemic, using their close connection to communities and auxiliary role to their governments; this approach is currently referred to as Humanitarian Pandemic Preparedness (H2P)

Support to National Societies

National Societies work closely with governments and other partners at both national and community level to address the lingering threat of H5N1. This builds on the investment in pandemic preparedness over the last four years and lessons learned from recent Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreaks.

The IFRC community-based activities in avian influenza prevention focus on health and hygiene education, prioritizing remote regions that have backyard poultry farming. These activities are taking place in 13 countries at maximum or high risk: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco, Russia, Timor-Leste, Tunisia, Ukraine and Vietnam.

The IFRC also supports National Society activities in the detection and communication of disease outbreaks among poultry, and in the development of avian influenza contingency plans.

All IFRC avian influenza programmes include, but are not limited to, the following activities:
  • training of Red Cross Red Crescent staff and volunteers
  • information campaigns among local populations
  • coordination with public authorities such as ministries of health, education and agriculture, and regional veterinary services
  • organisation of community sessions to facilitate reporting of sick or dead poultry
  • procurement of disinfectants and personal protective equipment
  • development of communication and promotional material
  • awareness sessions at school level


Public Health in Emergencies - Pandemic influenza 

WHO Influenza website page


Avian Human Influenza – 2008 Annual report