Preventing Pandemics – The Global Influenza Threat

Oct 27, 2013

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Over the years, influenza has taken the lives of millions. While vaccines are helping to reduce the damage caused by the virus there is still a major capacity shortfall. Could access to US and European expertise and quality training improve capacity and prevent the next pandemic?

When new and deadly strains of influenza appear, their effects can be devastating, since a lack of immunity among the population can lead to pandemic disease. There were three pandemics in the 20th century – in 1918, 1957 and 1968 – which killed millions of people around the world. While flu shots have been available since the 1940s, when a virulent new strain appears there is a real scramble to get sufficient doses of the vaccine ready to protect the population.

A significant problem derives from the fact that the vaccine required to give protection changes every year. Unlike the situation with viruses such as measles, the antigen required to give protection varies depending on the predominant circulating strains of the influenza virus in any given year, as it constantly mutates to form new strains. Vaccination remains the only realistic weapon against a flu pandemic.  The antiviral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) that were stockpiled by governments in response are not particularly effective1, whereas vaccination can be efficacious two-thirds of the time, according to a large meta-analysis published in Lancet Infectious Diseases in 2012.2 While it is clearly less than perfect – and the protection figures are even worse for the elderly – vaccination is still the best weapon we have against influenza.

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