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TV Series Explores the Threat of a Next Global Influenza Pandemic

JUL 03, 2019 | EINAV KEET
A recent report on the PBS show News Hour details reasons why the next influenza pandemic is not a matter of if but when, and what is being done to prepare for the emergence of the next pandemic virus.

While flu seasons comes and goes each year, over the last century several pandemic influenza viruses have emerged to cause deadly global outbreaks. The most recent influenza pandemic came with the emergence of a novel H1N1 virus in 2009, which caused an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 deaths worldwide according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the global public health community is researching new ways to prevent and fight flu, the recent News Hour report highlights the inevitability a next pandemic influenza virus.

“If you ask disease specialists and public health specialists what are the infections that they’re most worried about, influenza is very frequently at the top of the list,” William Schaffner, MD, a board of director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told Contagion® in a recent interview. “Almost at any time could we have a major new influenza bad season or even a pandemic with a new virus, such as in 2009. It has to do with the biological function of the flu viruses. They are mutable – they can mutate and if a new mutation appears and has that biologic capacity to be transmitted readily from person to person, then we’re going to have a bad flu season.”

Pandemic influenza viruses easily infect humans and spread readily from person-to-person, and existing seasonal vaccines typically are not a match to a novel virus. Today’s global influenza surveillance efforts are better than ever at detecting the emergence of new and potentially pandemic viruses, but despite updates to national pandemic preparedness strategies Schaffner says we are only somewhat more prepared today for a pandemic. “It is so hard to say because flu is quite unpredictable,” said Schaffner. “We’re better set up but it’s not something we rehearse in most circumstances, and there will be unmet medical needs and a very strained healthcare systems if we have a pandemic.”

The News Hour report included a segment on the recent advances in the development of a universal flu vaccine, which could offer protection against all strains of the influenza virus across many years. “We have more research that has been done in this decade on trying to develop a better influenza vaccine,” said Schaffner, which he says could come to fruition within the coming decade. “We’re not quite there yet. The influenza virus is not only very facile, but it presents scientific challenges and people are working on those. My optimism suggests that in 10 years maybe some of those things will have an end, it could be even a little bit earlier but that means that everything has got to work smoothly, and flu doesn’t always do that.”
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