As the World Health Organization raised the pandemic alert for Influenza A (H1N1) to its highest level, humanitarian specialists are calling on governments and health authorities globally to strengthen poor communities' access to primary health care and protect the most at risk.

Impoverished people in developing countries are especially vulnerable to outbreaks given the prevalence of existing pandemics and weak health systems, warns World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization working in 100 countries. The aid group's health and policy specialists are encouraging authorities and staff to remain vigilant as the number of confirmed cases and deaths continue to increase and spread to regions with deeper poverty levels, including the African continent and Central America.

"With limited access to health services, extreme poverty, high malnutrition rates, and the slower-burning pandemics of HIV & AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria already stretching society's coping mechanisms, the poor are more at risk than the general population," said Stefan Germann, World Vision International's Geneva-based director for global health partnerships.

"Efforts to mitigate this pandemic should pay particular attention to this and work quickly to boost community-level health care essential to avoiding extremely high mortality rates, with or without a flu pandemic," Germann said.

Even providing vaccines to poor countries will have limited benefit unless local health access is strengthened and systems in place to immunize, monitor and treat people.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan's announcement points out that, "Although the pandemic appears to have moderate severity in comparatively well-off countries, it is prudent to anticipate a bleaker picture as the virus spreads to areas with limited resources, poor health care, and a high prevalence of underlying medical problems."

World Vision echoes the Director-General's assessment that it is "perhaps of greatest concern [that] we do not know how this virus will behave under conditions typically found in the developing world." So far, most cases have been found in more-developed countries.

In recent weeks, World Vision has urged government officials at the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva to re-establish primary health care as a chief priority for development. This aligns with commitments these leaders have already made to reduce child and maternal mortality by 2015. Already, nearly 10 million children and mothers die each year from avoidable causes such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria as many countries fail to focus on community-based approaches and deliver on their global health promises.

World Vision's own response to the so-called "Swine Flu" is being guided by measures developed in recent years, accessible at wvi-avianflu. Without imposing travel restrictions on its staff at present, World Vision urges people traveling to affected countries to observe all public health measures and practice adequate precautions regarding personal and respiratory hygiene practices.

World Vision health experts are available to speak to the media from Washington, D.C., Geneva, Nairobi and other cities.

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. World Vision serves all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender.

Source: World Vision

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