Seasonal, avian or pandemic flu?
Seasonal flu: Each year, a new variant of
seasonal flu circulates, hitting between
5% and 15% (WHO) of the world’s population. While a
nuisance to most people, it is more serious for the elderly
and immuno-compromised (people already sick and/or with weakened
defences). Each year, the pharmaceutical industry responds
by producing a new protective vaccine.
Avian flu: An infectious disease in birds
but which can infect other mammals including humans. The world
is currently experiencing the spread of a highly pathogenic
H5N1 avian flu strain. Migrating birds may be infecting domestic
flocks around the world. Since its appearance in Hong Kong
in 1997, H5N1 has spread across Asia to Europe, Africa and
potentially further. For the first time, scientists noted
cases of direct transmission of influenza to humans through
close contact with infected birds.
Pandemic flu: There is no outbreak of human
pandemic influenza anywhere in the world
today. However, experts agree that there are clear indications
that a new pandemic could arise. The 1918 flu pandemic resulted
from a mutated avian flu virus. Nobody knows when an avian
flu virus – most likely H5N1 – will acquire the
ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the
outbreak of a human pandemic influenza.
Are we prepared for a pandemic?
At present, no effective health measure is available to protect
against such a pandemic. Several drugs are available and a
pandemic vaccine could be produced by industry in up to six
months. Most European countries have a preparedness plan and
many scientific projects, including EU-funded ones, are hard
at work on new antiviral therapies and even universal vaccines
giving protection against all influenza in certain groups.
But there is no room for complacency: major scientific, industrial,
regulatory and political hurdles have to be overcome to meet
all the consequences of a potential pandemic.
What are science and EU-funded projects doing to
EU-supported research into avian and pandemic flu dates back
to the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5, 1998-2002), with €6
million spent on a range of projects working on both human
and animal influenza and other viruses. In FP6 (2002-2006),
€16 million was budgeted for such research under priority
themes: ‘Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for
health’ and ‘Food quality and safety’ (see
Projects). Research in this
field should continue in FP7 which is due to start in 2007.
In December 2005, the EU made a further €20 million
available for research in this important field, especially
for new vaccines and antivirals to combat H5N1 (see Calls).
Download the Avian/pandemic flu background briefing
Download the Influenza in animals briefing