Tuesday November 12, 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 Reports Progress in Containing Ebola Outbreak in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

It is impossible to predict where the outbreak is going to go next, said Ryan.

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WHO, Ebola, Outbreak
The executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies, Michael Ryan, says he is largely optimistic that aid workers are getting control of the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo. VOA

The World Health Organization reports progress in containing the Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but says many challenges to its elimination remain.  WHO reports the number of cases in the outbreak now stands at 3,207, including 2,144 deaths.

The executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies, Michael Ryan, says he is largely optimistic that aid workers are getting control of the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo.  But, he says, it is impossible to say the outbreak is over.

“It is not.  It is impossible to predict where the outbreak is going to go next,” said Ryan. “But… I do–I would stand over the fact that we have significantly contained the virus in a much smaller geographic area.  Now we have to kill the virus.  The problem is, it is back in areas that are deeply insecure.”

In fact, the virus has come full circle.  Ryan notes the disease has moved from Butembo and other urban areas to the remote, rural town of Mangina, the epicenter of the outbreak.  He says the virus is back where it began when the Ebola outbreak was declared August 1, 2018.

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But, he says, it is impossible to say the outbreak is over. Pixabay

“So, essentially the virus is back in the same zone,” said Ryan. “So, the factors that allowed that virus to transmit at low intensity for a number of months, have not changed.  Deep insecurity, reticence amongst the population, distrust and many other factors continue to make this a very dangerous situation.  But a situation, for which I believe we are making significant progress at this time.”

Ryan says WHO is increasing the scale of its operation, engaging in active surveillance across North Kivu province and actively seeking new cases and tracing contacts to keep the virus from spreading.

He says more than 230,000 people have been vaccinated against the deadly disease and more lives are being saved among people infected with the virus who are coming to the treatment centers.

He says the fatality rate among the nearly 800 patients currently in Ebola treatment units is less than one third – a significantly better outcome than the two-thirds fatality rate reported for the disease overall.

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Still, this is the biggest Ebola outbreak in Africa since the epidemic across three West African countries in 2014 killed more than 11,000 people. (VOA)