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Avian flu has hit international news headlines again. Nigeria has reported the first human death in sub-Saharan Africa, the United Kingdom is going through its first outbreak among poultry, and in Southeast Asia avian flu continues to simmer, with ongoing outbreaks and human deaths.

The agent responsible — the H5N1 influenza virus — could spark a pandemic to rival those of the last century that killed millions of people.

Africa is where Southeast Asia was three to four years ago. Outbreaks of avian flu in poultry are repeatedly reported in Nigeria and Egypt. Other outbreaks in Niger, Cameroon, and Djibouti have fortunately been contained, but neighbouring countries like Togo, Ghana and Chad are still at high risk.

We must not stand by and let history repeat itself. Every available force must be mustered to limit H5N1's spread across the continent.

Communication holds the key

African countries must urgently make the media a full partner in national preparation plans.

Until recently, the African media has been ill prepared to report effectively on outbreaks of avian flu. The first African H5N1 outbreak, among poultry in Nigeria last year, led to sensational media headlines causing public alarm and panic. The media must be empowered to correctly and authoritatively cover avian flu issues.

Media headlines are usually our first, and often only, source of information. By alerting health and government officials to rumours of a new outbreak, and conveying vital health and safety information to the public, the media can play a key role in containing the spread of bird flu.

Like any soldier going into battle, the media needs to be fully briefed about the enemy to take part in a well-coordinated assault. This means not simply reporting about deaths and outbreaks, but being more proactive with up to date information on, for example, stories about how other countries have dealt with similar outbreaks.

It is not just about relaying information, but also influencing governments. "Media stories are usually followed by policy decisions," said William Mbabazi, of the World Health Organization, at a media-training workshop in Kampala, Uganda, in January.

Engaging the media

The workshop, organised by Uganda Media for Health, aimed to familiarise journalists from across Africa with the threat of avian flu, broaden their understanding and provide useful information.

It was a starting point for new lines of communication between the media, health and veterinary experts and government officials. This and a similar workshop in Nigeria have resulted in a new determination among African journalists and editors to produce more and better quality avian flu coverage.

Similar efforts are underway elsewhere. In Nigeria, a new government communications strategy is encouraging better links between health officials and the media. The initiative has enrolled community leaders and town criers, according to Marcus Amanzi, a Nigerian news editor.

The Ugandan government plans to involve the media in a forthcoming simulation exercise, as part of its national pandemic preparedness plan. This will include the real slaughter of poultry on a farm.

But unless the media are fully engaged beforehand, the exercise could lead to confused reporting and could spark panic among the public.

In Ethiopia and Mauritius, for example, a lack of coordination with national journalists during similar drills led to a misinformed public that stopped buying chickens despite the absence of a real outbreak.

On the other hand, in Kenya and Egypt, where the media were more involved and the public better informed as a result, simulation outbreaks and control operations have proceeded far more smoothly.

A network of support

Media empowerment and journalists' enthusiasm about covering pressing health issues must be supported. One way to do this is to establish an international network for journalists to keep abreast of new developments in avian flu.

International workshops are a good starting point for this, but they must be followed up with more training events.

SciDev.Net uses its website and subscriber list to encourage journalists to further their training.

Organisations such as Internews, the Health and Media Partnership, and the World Federation of Science Journalists also encourage journalists through discussion forums and long-term mentoring.

But to win the battle, all soldiers must be prepared. Targeting journalists alone is not enough. Senior editors of African media houses must also sign up to national preparedness plans — now rather than later.

Tom Egwang, Chief Executive Officer
Uganda Media for Health

Julie Clayton, consultant