February 13, 2007 / 7:36 PM / 12 years ago

Don't spread panic about bird flu, WHO urges media

CAIRO (Reuters) - The United Nations health agency urged local and international media on Tuesday to boost coverage of bird flu and avoid misleading information about the disease.

An employee carries a turkey at a slaughter house in Dabas, 35 km (22 miles) south of Budapest, February 13, 2007. The United Nations health agency urged local and international media on Tuesday to boost coverage of bird flu and avoid misleading information about the disease. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

“We are appealing to the media to make people more aware. We need awareness, not panic,” said Ibrahim el-Kerdany, a World Health Organization (WHO) regional media adviser.

“Just this morning on one of the television stations we saw wrong messages being transmitted, people talking about vaccines when there are no yet available. The vaccines are for birds not for humans,” he told reporters.

He was speaking at the start of a three-day WHO conference on Global Pandemic Influenza Communications in Cairo.

The conference brings together officials from governments and international organizations to tackle issues including how to send out important information in case of a pandemic.

“During a human influenza pandemic, production and delivery of vaccines will take time, and antiviral medicines will be limited in supply,” said Hussein A. Gezairy, the WHO Regional Director for Eastern Mediterranean.

“The single most important tool available to all countries will be communications,” he told the participants.

Bird flu awareness campaigns in the Middle East mainly coincide with the seasonal outbreaks of the virus, with television and newspaper advertisements warning people against direct contact with live birds.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has the largest bird flu cluster outside Asia, with 12 human deaths out of 20 cases.

The fatal H5N1 virus has killed 166 people worldwide since it re-emerged in Asia in 2003, the WHO says.

Kerdany said the media faced an uphill task especially in a country like Egypt, where raising poultry at home is a key source of income and nutrition for millions of households.

“Egypt lives off poultry to a very large extent. There is a very large population living in a very small area of land, so infection can be easier,” he said, standing near a painting of an Egyptian woman carrying a basket of live birds, decorating a hall at the five-star hotel that hosted the conference.

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