Swiss told to stock up on bird flu masks

Daniel Koch from the Federal Health Office's bird flu task force putting on a protective mask at a news conference Keystone

The Federal Health Office has issued a list of personal hygiene guidelines for the Swiss population in the event of a bird flu pandemic among humans.

This content was published on May 15, 2007 - 10:56

The main recommendation is for members of the public to stock up on 50 protective masks each, which are available in shops for a few francs.

The government said on Tuesday that the responsibility for being prepared for an outbreak was shared between the public and the authorities.

It said the authorities were responsible for vaccinations, other medicines and the general monitoring of the disease; the public were called on to follow measures that could limit the risk of infection and slow down the spread of a pandemic.

No order to wear masks would be given until after an actual outbreak, according to the Federal Health Office.

Additional personal hygiene recommendations - in the event of a pandemic - include the regular washing of hands with soap, using a tissue when coughing or sneezing which is then immediately thrown away, and avoiding handshakes.

Biggest global threat

A human bird flu pandemic is still the biggest global health threat, according to a senior Swiss official speaking on the eve of the 60th World Health Assembly.

Bird flu may not have made headlines recently but was set to top the bill at the ten-day session, which opened in Geneva on Monday.

"We still have an epidemic in birds, we still have regular transmission from birds to humans and that means the threat is still there," Gaudenz Silberschmidt, head of international affairs at the Federal Health Office, told swissinfo.

"We still don't know when there will be a mutation towards human-to-human transmission. [Pandemic] preparations have advanced but they still have to advance further in all countries."

Switzerland is due to start taking delivery early this summer of eight million doses of a pre-pandemic vaccine – enough for the whole population – made by British-American firm GlaxoSmithKline.

Media staple

Fears over the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus have been a media staple over the past three years but no cases were reported in Europe during the winter migration season.

From February to March last year 32 dead wild birds were found with the H5N1 virus in Switzerland alone.

But while bird flu may have fallen off the public's radar in Switzerland and other European countries, Silberschmidt insists the threat has not gone away.

According to the WHO, 172 people have died after coming into contact with infected poultry since 2003. There have been 14 fatalities so far this year, mostly in Asia.

"To some extent it's helpful that the massive media attention has dropped off because then we can prepare quietly; on the other hand we need the public to take the threat seriously," said Silberschmidt.

Delegates are also addressing issues such as the application of the International Health Regulations, the destruction of smallpox virus stocks, malaria and tuberculosis control, plus the eradication of polio.


Bird flu in Switzerland

Between the end of February and March last year 32 cases of the H5N1 bird flu virus were diagnosed, one on Lake Geneva and the rest in the region around Lake Constance.

The authorities called for calm, but said they had expected the virus to reach Switzerland.

Total bans on keeping poultry outdoors have been implemented twice in Switzerland: end of October to mid-December 2005 and mid-February until the end of April 2006.

This latest partial ban on poultry kept outdoors will run until April 30 this year. It affects 1,000 professional farmers and 4,000 amateur poultry keepers.

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