Report: governments are ignoring the need to prevent a flu pandemic

A new report says that countries are failing to take basic steps to save lives in the event of a flu pandemic, and could be left “bouncing from one emergency to the next”. The…

Report: governments are ignoring the need to prevent a flu pandemic

A new report says that countries are failing to take basic steps to save lives in the event of a flu pandemic, and could be left “bouncing from one emergency to the next”.

The study, conducted by the Centre for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR) at the University of Sydney and released on 1 January, argues that the global response to past, and currently expected, bioterrorism has left the world unprepared for the next public health disaster. The areas likely to suffer the most include food production, air travel, and the need to quickly vaccinate millions of people to stem the outbreak.

“We need to be confident we can respond to an influenza pandemic. It’s time that all countries worked together in strong and public partnerships to build a multi-layered biodefense response,” said Richard Harris, executive director of CIDR.

The report warns that the world is “sending the wrong signals to public health workers, scientists, development experts, and policy makers as well as the investment community.”

Among the many serious shortcomings the authors cite, are gaps in the development of the appropriate vaccines and antivirals, and the communications of such actions to the public and other jurisdictions.

Global pandemics caused the deaths of 500 million people worldwide between 1851 and 1968, with thousands of children most at risk from the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. In 2004, another deadly strain – Pandemrix, the German-made vaccine for a pandemic flu strain was responsible for five deaths and 16 hospitalisations.

The report also points to a lack of communication between countries, even after the pandemic officially ended in 1957, which hampered the ability of states to coordinate response measures. Only 55% of countries met World Health Organisation guidelines for controlling the outbreak at that time.

As a consequence, countries were unable to carry out a number of long-term measures, such as providing social and economic opportunities and public health surveillance, to prevent future outbreaks.

“A time-lag between a pandemic and its end, and a lack of communication between governments can exacerbate the consequences of public health crises. More often than not, gaps in policy and technical response as well as infrastructure have contributed to creating the conditions for a pandemic to spread rapidly,” said Dr Peter Gething, head of the United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) and member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) council of directors.

To address these issues, the report recommends that governments develop existing bio-strategies, such as vaccine development strategies, or new public health initiatives, to enhance capacity and policy that will allow countries to form coordinated response plans, in a coordinated manner.

“While there are many risks associated with recent public health emergencies, there are also many opportunities for everyone to play their part in improving health and preventing epidemics,” said Harris.

“The rise of the internet, social media, connectivity, and enhanced data science capabilities are the tools that will assist governments and health agencies to collectively respond to future threats to public health. The report indicates that one of the greatest risk factors for pandemic influenza is not carrying sufficient tools for a public health response and developing multi-sectoral and multi-university/academic approaches to successful multi-layered multi-disciplinary collaborative response to future public health threats.”

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