The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies yesterday said its programmes would aim to prevent the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus from birds to humans in remote rural villages over the next year.
West and central Africa were ''particularly vulnerable'' because healthcare services there were often weak, it added.
Experts including U.N. bird flu coordinator David Nabarro have said Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are a key frontline partner in gearing up preparedness against a pandemic.
''A crucial part of the International Federation's response will be to specially train 50,000 volunteers and staff to respond to the specific nature of this crisis,'' the Federation said in a statement.
The Federation was set up in 1919 to fight outbreaks of Spanish influenza and typhus in the wake of World War Two. The 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 40 million people worldwide, is thought to have begun in wild birds.
Its 183 Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies would help with public awareness campaigns on handling poultry, early detection of human cases and education on hygiene measures.
''Prevention is key. If remote, vulnerable communities who live in close proximity to poultry are not reached, then avian influenza will continue to spread and this could lead to more human infections,'' Adelheid Marschang, the Federation's manager of public health in emergencies, told a news conference.
''The Red Cross and Red Crescent network can go the last mile and take prevention messages to those most at risk -- like small-scale poultry farmers, backyard poultry owners, rural traders, housewives and children,'' the German-born doctor added.
The agency has already spent some 700,000 Swiss francs (551,600 dollars) to help two dozen countries from China to Iraq and North Korea to fight or prepare for avian influenza.
The H5N1 avian flu virus has spread quickly in recent months, and has been reported in more than 40 countries across Asia, Europe and parts of Africa, according to the Federation.
The disease has killed 110 people and infected 196 since 2003. It remains primarily an animal disease, but experts say the virus could acquire the ability to pass rapidly from human to human and could kill millions of people in a pandemic.
Marschang said the Federation was working closely with the World Health Organisation, which provides technical assistance to countries.
''We look more at social mobilisation, addressing basic health issues in communities, villages and remote areas through volunteers on bicycles and motor scooters, away from the large cities,'' she said.
REUTERS SC PM0449