Q&A with Dr Ann Moen: How influenza preparedness helps fight other infectious diseases

Dr Moen is Chief of the WHO’s Influenza Preparedness & Response Unit (IPR)

What lessons does influenza preparedness offer for tackling respiratory pathogens and other diseases?

Capacity building for influenza is critical because if you can prepare for and respond to flu outbreaks or respiratory events, you learn and practice for responses to other emerging diseases.

Flu is not a sporadic outbreak like Ebola or Zika. It is always there, so there is always something to practice with and keep skills sharp. Because flu is a continual threat there is a lot of learning that goes on which also supports work on other emerging diseases. It’s like the basic architecture for capacity building in all areas. For example, you can practice your communications for responding to outbreaks and better understand the behavioral aspects of vaccine hesitancy. You can build your laboratory capacity and surveillance and response capacity and use it for other things infectious threats such as MERS or SARS or other respiratory threats. Influenza can also help you learn how to implement a vaccine programme and introduce new drugs.

All these things, if you put them in place for flu, will help build capacity for a broad spectrum of outbreaks.

Can you give an example of a country that established an influenza-monitoring programme, which was then used for other diseases?

In Africa, when we started in 2006, there were only about five countries that had capacity to monitor influenza and process flu samples. Now, in the last ten years, after we started building capacity, there are about 25 countries that routinely conduct flu work. When the 2009 pandemic came, many of them were ready to diagnose the first cases through their newly established flu surveillance programmes.

We also embarked on a global rapid response-training programme where we trained more than 100 countries, including many in Africa. Later we heard that they were using the flu outbreak response teams in their response to Rift Valley Fever, to Ebola, and other outbreaks.

There are still places we can improve surveillance, in Africa, in central Asia. There are little pockets everywhere.

Is there a long-term plan to help the world prepare for influenza?

WHO and partners are developing a “Global Strategy for Influenza” to be launched in 2018. In accordance with the WHO’s Thirteen 13th Global Programme of Work (GPW13), which draws on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and efforts to strengthen health systems to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC), the new strategy will support WHO Member States in developing seasonal influenza prevention and control capacities. These efforts, in turn, will build greater preparedness for the next pandemic.

The strategy focuses on three priorities, strengthening pandemic preparedness, expanding seasonal influenza prevention and control and research and innovation. Research and innovation includes improved modelling and forecasting of influenza outbreaks, along with the development of new vaccines, including a possible universal influenza vaccine that would work against all influenza virus strains.

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