Friday May 24, 2019

Influenza Pandemic Remains Global Threat despite increasing Worldwide supply of Flu Vaccines, warns WHO

The WHO said global production capacity for pandemic vaccines increased from an estimated 1.5 billion doses in 2006 to 6.2 billion last year

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FILE - A boy gets an influenza vaccine injection at a health care clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, Jan. 12, 2013. VOA

The World Health Organization has warned that a global influenza pandemic remains a real threat despite progress made over the past 10 years in increasing the worldwide supply of flu vaccines.

In 2006, the World Health Organization acknowledged that countries around the world were ill-prepared to tackle an influenza pandemic. At the time, there were concerns about an H5N1 bird flu pandemic spreading globally.

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In response, the WHO launched the Global Action Plan (GAP) for influenza vaccines with three main objectives. It aimed to increase evidence-based seasonal vaccine use; increase vaccine production as a protection against pandemics and improve regulatory capacity in developing countries; and promote research and development for better vaccines.

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That initiative has now ended, but Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO assistant-director general for health systems and innovation, observed that global preparation for an influenza pandemic had vastly improved over the past decade.

“We are certainly better prepared for an influenza pandemic than we were 10 years ago,” Kieny said, “but,we must not lose the momentum and we are still facing the threat of an influenza pandemic in 2016.”

More vaccine production

The WHO said global production capacity for pandemic vaccines increased from an estimated 1.5 billion doses in 2006 to 6.2 billion last year. While it’s an impressive achievement, Kieny said, it “still falls short of the GAP goal to immunize 70 percent of the population with two doses of vaccine, potentially for which we would need 10 billion doses.”

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She noted that only rich countries were producing vaccines in 2006, whereas today, 14 mostly upper-middle-income countries were making strides toward manufacturing their own vaccines.

In addition, she said, the number of countries that have national influenza immunization policies in place has increased from 74 to 115 today, “including lower-middle-income countries and one low-income country.”

William Ampofo, a professor at the University of Ghana and an advisory group member of the GAP, said he was encouraged by the progress made, but he told VOA he was disappointed that the creation of the GAP had not resulted in increased vaccine production capacity in Africa.

“As part of the GAP, technology transfer was provided for developing countries, and South Africa and Egypt were part of this initiative,” he said. “Unfortunately, the tech transfer has not resulted in influenza vaccine production capacity as of now.”

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He added, however, that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa had shown that vaccination is an effective tool against a dangerous virus and that the manufacture of a flu vaccine on the continent should be seriously considered.

“Because of what happened with Ebola, now the countries — in West Africa, especially — the ministers of health are now giving attention to vaccine production capacity on the African continent,” he said. “They recognize, however, that it is very difficult, but they feel that something must be started.”

Flu season

The flu season in the Northern Hemisphere is set to start in December, peak in late January or early February and run its course by April or May. The WHO estimates every year there are between 3 million and 5 million forensic cases of influenza, resulting in 150,000 to 500,000 deaths.

A large variety of viruses or subtype influenza viruses are circulating in wild and domestic birds. Only three viruses currently are circulating in humans: influenza A (H1N1), an influenza A variant (H3N2) and an influenza B virus. Traditional flu vaccines, called “trivalent” vaccines, are made to protect against those three flu viruses.

Wenqing Zhang, a scientist in WHO’s Department of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases, said the influenza viruses are constantly changing. She said one type of change, “antigenic drift,” results in small changes in the genes of influenza viruses. A second way, “antigenic shift,” involves an abrupt, major change.

“With the antigenic drift, it will cause an epidemic, and if there is an antigenic shift, then there will be a pandemic,” she said. “Because the virus is constantly evolving, the threat of influenza pandemic is real. It is very real. It could be tomorrow or in five years’ time. It could be mild like the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, or it could be a very severe one, like in 1918.”

During the 1920s, scientists estimated that 21.5 million people had died as a result of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. More recent estimates have put the death toll at between 50 million and 100 million. (VOA)

Next Story

WHO to Strengthen Strategies to Combat Ebola Epidemic in Congo

The WHO's latest report counted 1,738 cases of Ebola in Congo, including 1,218 deaths

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FILE - A priest watches as health workers dressed in Ebola protective suits prepare the body of an Ebola patient for burial at the Ebola treatment center in Butembo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, March 26, 2019. VOA

A panel of World Health Organization experts says strategies must be strengthened to combat the worsening Ebola epidemic in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The WHO’s latest report counted 1,738 cases of Ebola in Congo, including 1,218 deaths.

Congo’s minister of health, Oly Ilungo, likened the Ebola epidemic to a multi-headed dragon. Speaking through an interpreter, he said the epidemic began in one place, Mangina, but keeps popping up elsewhere.

“Our response, therefore, needs to continually adapt itself to the situation,” said Ilungo. “We need to continually adapt and change our strategy bearing in mind lessons learned.”

He said prevention measures, surveillance, the tracing of infected people, timely treatment and safe burial practices must be maintained. At the same time, he said old tools need to be refreshed and improved.

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FILE – Victorine Siherya, an Ebola survivor working as a caregiver to babies who are confirmed Ebola cases, holds an infant outside the red zone at the Ebola treatment center in Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 25, 2019. VOA

He proposed setting up a data-driven system, which compiles all the information produced in the response effort.

“Increasingly, it manages to carry out analyses that allow us to get ahead of the problem and we can identify the danger areas where there might be a greater risk of the virus spreading and we can get ahead of the problem,” he added.

The WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, finds the increasing number of new Ebola cases extremely worrying and challenging. She warned the risk of the disease spreading beyond Congo’s borders is very high.

She said the DRC’s nine neighboring countries are aware of the dangers and, with the help of the WHO, have taken many steps to prepare for that possibility.

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An Ebola health worker is seen at a treatment center in Beni, Eastern Congo, April, 16, 2019. The World Health Organization is warning it may not be possible to contain Ebola to the two affected provinces in eastern Congo if violent attacks on health teams continue. VOA

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“We have 16 Ebola-treatment centers and units having been established across the nine countries,” she said. “And, in addition over 4,500 health workers have been trained to be able to detect and manage these cases.The countries have continued to engage with communities to raise their awareness in all high-risk areas.”

WHO officials are appealing for intensified international political engagement and financial support to combat Ebola. They warn the further spread of the dangerous disease would have serious social and economic regional implications and would trigger an even greater crisis. (VOA)