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Preparing for a pandemic

June 10, 2012

Influenza Summit warns that annual vaccination levels are too low in most Asian countries – time to act together and share experience and best practices.

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By Lance Jennings

Influenza does not respect borders. We are well under way for the influenza season, which hits tropical and subtropical climates hardest in mid-year.

Combine this with the recent outbreaks of the swine and avian influenza in some countries of the region, and you will quickly pose yourself a question as to what can be done in Malaysia and throughout the region to better protect ourselves against both seasonal influenza and potential pandemics.

This is the question that more than 200 leading international influenza experts gathering on June 12 and 13 in Bangkok, Thailand at the first ever Asia Pacific influenza summit, will try to answer.

There a number of measures that need to be implemented but I am sure my colleagues will underscore the importance of annual influenza vaccination to control the disease and improve influenza pandemic preparedness.

There is no better way to do this. Yet, vaccination levels among the Asian-Pacific population, including health care professionals, are still much too low. That is why the experts will discuss how to protect those most at risk for serious complications, e.g. the elderly, children, and people suffering various chronic and respiratory diseases.

The challenge is serious. Each year, approximately 5 to 10% of adults and up to 30% of children worldwide will suffer from seasonal influenza, resulting in medical visits, hospitalization and death, as well as millions of lost work and school days.

It is estimated that seasonal influenza causes up to one million deaths globally each year but many of these go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Health authorities, scientific institutions and professional organizations worldwide undertake a variety of seasonal influenza vaccination initiatives.

Despite these efforts, vaccine coverage rates vary greatly between countries and between different targeted groups.

Immunization programmes

Let us take the example of one of the most vulnerable groups – the elderly.

Indonesia’s elderly immunisation rates are particularly low with less than 1 percent of 25 million Indonesians 60 years or older receiving annual vaccination against influenza.

Similarly low levels of immunization are recorded in Pakistan, India and Mongolia, with Malaysia (at 5 percent) marginally better immunization rates.

Thailand is at approximately 15 percent of elderly vaccinated against influenza, but still far behind Australia, Japan and South Korea who are the only countries in Asia Pacific to have comprehensive immunization programmes in place for the majority of the elderly.

Vaccinating the most vulnerable groups but also wider population is extremely important. It has been shown that robust annual influenza vaccination programs, apart from protecting against annual epidemics, are an important foundation for pandemic vaccination capabilities.

Pandemic influenza poses an ongoing threat to health in Asia-Pacific region. But many countries across the region realise that vaccinating large populations during a pandemic is highly challenging and requires robust public demand, reliable vaccine production, distribution channels, healthcare worker training and program administration capabilities.

Seasonal vaccination is therefore a very good first step to prepare for a pandemic.

The Summit

We hope that the first Asia Pacific Influenza Summit meeting will stimulate policy and advocacy approaches to improve influenza vaccine uptake in high-risk groups and healthcare workers in the region.

The summit is modelled on the successful European (ESWI) and United States (CDC/AMA) Influenza Summits held in 2011. Its key aims are to review the current state of official seasonal influenza control policies in Asia-Pacific countries, and to establish collaborative relationships to promote best practices for the control of influenza.

Thailand, hosting the summit, will be an important contributor to this discussion as it is one of Asian countries, which has developed an effective influenza control program.

It successfully communicated to healthcare workers and other high risk groups the health and economic impacts of influenza as well as the benefits of prevention and managed to increase its vaccination levels.

The work is far from being completed though. This summit will hopefully help to share experience and best practices to better prepare each country but also the whole region against seasonal influenza and potential pandemics.

We need to act together as there is one thing we can be sure of – influenza will not respect borders.

Prof Lance Jennings is chairman of the Asia-Pacific Alliance for the Control of Influenza (APACI). His organisation has collaborated with Influenza Foundation of Thailand (IFT) and the Department of Disease Control (Thailand) to organise the first Asia-Pacific Influenza Summit.


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