Since the beginning of the month, China has been affected by an outbreak of avian influenza. Hundreds of people throughout the world have previously been infected. According to a survey conducted in Bangladesh during a severe epidemic in 2007, half of the people surveyed had never heard of this disease. The others remained ignorant of the symptoms. Rural populations, especially, should have a better understanding of the disease and prevention measures. To achieve this, information campaigns aimed at raising awareness about the avian flu virus among world populations is essential.
This article is a translation of “Enquête sur la grippe aviaire” by Timothée Froelich.
The avian flu virus initially broke out in Hong Kong in 1997, and spread throughout the world. However, Asian countries hold the tragic record of the highest number of cases, with over 400 of the 622 detected. In the middle of an outbreak in May 2007, a survey of 418 inhabitants of Bangladesh [available on MyScienceWork] was conducted by researchers in microbiology M. Jahangir Alam, A. B. M. Selimuzzaman and IPA consultant M. K. Ali from Rajshahi Medical College, in order to assess the state of their knowledge about the virus. Among the themes surveyed were: the symptoms of an infected person, the means of prevention against the virus, and the mode of transmission of the disease.
Photo: Peter Cooper
A poorly known disease
“It is regrettable that a major part of the population remains ignorant about this disease,” say Alam, Selimuzzaman and Ali. The study revealed that more than half the people surveyed had no idea of what the term “avian flu” designates. The scientists, therefore, focused on the other half, who knew of the disease. Among these, 42% thought that respiratory problems, cough and fever were not symptoms of the avian flu, although they truly are part of the signs detected during an infection. If we add the 16% who claimed not to know any symptoms at all, almost 58% of respondants did not know the impact that the virus has on humans. Even if 85% of people surveyed were aware that avian flu represents a serious threat to human life and that it is necessary to protect oneself from it, they did not know why or how. Only 19% of the Bangladeshi had correct information about the symptoms. The others were unaware of the existence of the virus, or underestimated the danger of the disease.
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Knowledge of and, especially, the publicizing of preventive actions are necessary to bring missing elements to the local popular culture. However, this country is mostly composed of a rural population with little formal education. In fact, the authors of the survey see a link between illiteracy and the lack of information concerning the disease. Any large communication campaign takes place in a specific cultural and social context, which must necessarily be taken into account.
Provide better information and erase misconceptions
The last part of this survey shows that even the informed population did not know much about the disease and the means of preventing it. When asked about the transmission of the virus to humans, 62% of the Bangladeshi rightly believed that possessing, transporting or slaughtering poultry was a potential risk of contagion. Regarding consumption, 55% knew that partially cooked poultry meat could transmit the disease and only 37% believed that eggs posed the same risk. The WHO has confirmed that consuming meals containing raw blood or raw meat presents a high transmission risk. During an outbreak, then, Bangladeshi did know that contact with infected animals increases the probability of the virus transmission to humans. Nevertheless, many still underestimated the danger of consuming undercooked meat.
Today, Bangladesh is a country frequently affected by avian influenza, in spite of its good economic and population growth. If transmission between humans appears, an epidemic-like spread might happen again. This could be avoided or at least minimized. To do so, vaccination remains the best solution. At the same time, sociological studies contribute to enhancing prevention for rural populations without much education and deeply rooted in a geographical and cultural context. A better local understanding of infectious diseases would improve the prevention of epidemics. The population could reconsider its habits and maybe even elaborate a clear way to fight such viruses. All of this could help Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, to suffer less and less from these lethal infections that it builds up over time.
Find out more:
Frequently Asked Questions on human infection with influenza A (H7N9) virus in China, by the World Health Organization.