Influenza: Are we ready for a severe pandemic?

Published: 11 May 2013 15:05 CET

As of 8 May 2013, 32 people have died in China of H7N9, a strain of avian influenza, but experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) say there is no evidence that it can spread among people as yet. This is the third strain of influenza to hit the headlines in recent years: the first two were H5N1, known as “bird flu”, and H1N1, which was known as “swine flu”.

While these deaths are tragic, we are fortunate that sustained human-to-human transmission is not a characteristic of this strain of influenza and, therefore, does not pose a significant risk to lives on a large scale.

However, if the virus develops the capacity for easy, human-to-human transmission – or another emerges with this feature – would we be ready?

Jim Catampongan, the IFRC's Emergency Health Coordinator for Asia Pacific, has been at the forefront of the organization’s influenza preparedness and response since 2006. He says that H7N9 is different from previous strains in that while it causes illness and sometimes death in people, infected birds show little or no signs of disease.

“This means the virus may be circulating widely without us knowing as birds are not dropping dead in large numbers,” he said.

The high number of cases and deaths over a short period of time – 131 cases and 32 deaths – have caused WHO to brand H7N9 as one of the “most lethal” strains to emerge in recent years.

Catampongan said that the unpredictable nature of influenza viruses makes it vital to invest in community preparedness measures and ensure individuals understand their own roles in preventing the spread of disease. He said Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers were well-placed to intervene.

“They are best placed to ensure that health care reaches the most vulnerable, targets appropriate gatekeepers, and overcomes cultural barriers to making use of health services. During a pandemic situation, volunteers can easily ensure that timely and appropriate messages reach communities,” he said.

“Volunteers and community members are often first responders. We need to continue to invest in empowering communities to respond in a rapid and coordinated manner when an emergency strikes.”

There are communities and nations around the world that, over the last few years, have invested in preparedness, such as public education campaigns about how to stay safe and what to do in the event of a severe pandemic. However, programmes to support low-resource nations and communities have been redirected away from community-based work towards scientific research. Communities are, therefore, less prepared and many would be at enormous risk of a severe pandemic, a risk even greater than many developed nations.

“While a pandemic vaccine may be the most effective way of keeping someone safe from a novel influenza virus, our experience has shown that vaccines – as well as antiviral drugs – take time to be produced in huge quantities and distributed widely, particularly to the more remote, at-risk communities,” Catampongan said.

“We need to urgently support developing countries to put in place non-pharmaceutical interventions for rapid roll-out at scale in low-resource settings should the need arise.”

The IFRC has community-based programmes geared towards building community resilience. Resilience programmes include preparedness components for priority risks identified by communities and build on the lessons learnt through the influenza preparedness and response programme since 2006.