Antananarivo/Nairobi/Geneva, 10 October 2017— The Malagasy Red Cross is training 1,000 volunteers and staff to serve on the frontline of its growing response to the outbreak of pneumonic plague.
In Madagascar, cases of bubonic plague– spread between animals to humans through flea bites– occur nearly every year. The emergence of the more virulent pneumonic form is concerning and is testing existing preparedness efforts.
“This time is different. The majority of infections and deaths are from pneumonic plague which is spreading from person-to-person and our volunteers have to learn a new set of skills to fight this old disease,” said Dr Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, Regional Director for Africa for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
While the Malagasy Red Cross has responded to plague outbreaks in the past, most of these have involved the bubonic form where prevention and control efforts have focused on fumigation and environmental sanitation. Pneumonic plague requires additional infection control measures because it spreads through the air between people. Madagascar’s crowded urban areas, weak health systems and poor infrastructure are contributing to the rapid spread of the disease in major cities.
“The Red Cross is one of the key actors on the ground working with the Government and international partners, and our volunteers are helping to address people’s fears by providing them with life-saving information and support,” said Andoniaina Ratsimamanga, Secretary General of Malagasy Red Cross. “We’ve mobilized more than 1,000 volunteers and are upgrading their skills on community surveillance, contract tracing and messaging to stop the spread of this terrible disease,” she added.
Pneumonic plague–a virulent form of the bacteria yersinia pestis— is fatal if not treated early with antibiotics. The World Health Organization has recently shipped in 1.2 million doses of antibiotics to Madagascar–enough to treat 5,000 people and provide another 100,000 people with prophylaxes, if they have been exposed to the disease. Personal protective equipment and access to antibiotics will be critical for Red Cross volunteers to work in communities to ensure they are protected from the disease and preventing its spread to others.
Over the weekend, IFRC released more than 360,000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to support the expansion of Malagasy Red Cross community surveillance, contact tracing, water and sanitation, and vector control efforts. IFRC is also deploying infectious disease and community-health experts.
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