Flu pandemic preparedness - background information material for the press
A pandemic is the biggest possible epidemic: a disease that spreads around globe. Avian influenza refers to different influenza viruses that primarily affect birds. On rare occasions, these bird viruses can infect other species, including humans. A human influenza pandemic happens when a new subtype emerges that has not previously circulated in humans and therefore the human immune system has no defence against it (nor is a vaccination ready at the point in time the pandemic breaks out). H5N1 is a strain with pandemic potential, since it might ultimately adapt into a strain that is contagious among humans and can cause a pandemic. Influenza pandemics are rare but recurrent events. Three pandemics occurred in the previous century: “Spanish influenza” in 1918, “Asian influenza” in 1957, and “Hong Kong influenza” in 1968. The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 40–50 million people worldwide. It was exceptional and is considered one of the deadliest disease events in human history.
The current H5N1 strain first infected humans in Hong Kong in 1997, causing 18 cases, including six deaths. Since mid-2003, this specific virus has caused the largest and most severe outbreak in poultry on record. In December 2003, infections in people exposed to sick birds were identified. Since then, more than 250 people have been infected, and over half of them died. It should be stressed that up to now this virus has not caused a pandemic, but it raises the concern of health experts that a new pandemic may come closer. If a fully contagious pandemic virus were to emerge, its global spread is considered inevitable. Countries might, through measures such as border closures and travel restrictions, delay arrival of the virus, but cannot stop it. Therefore, as far as a human pandemic is concerned, all countries are at risk. Each and every country has to be prepared for this eventuality.
The European Commission has launched a number of initiatives including an EU wide simulation exercise; the setting up of both a crisis coordination system (ARGUS) and an early warning and response system (EWRS); the commitment of 20 million euros to research projects and discussion with the pharmaceutical industry concerning vaccines and anti-virals.
Furthermore, while the responsibility for human pandemic preparedness lies primarily with the Member States, each has submitted national preparedness plans to both the European Commission and the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Commission is working closely with Member States, the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on the development of these plans, and to ensure that they would work smoothly together in the event of a pandemic.
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- Glossary of terms on avian influenza and pandemic preparedness
- Questions and answers on avian influenza and links with human health
- Glossary on influenza vaccines and antivirals