WHO releases pandemic strategy as summer influenza rates soar

Matt Woodley

18/03/2019 3:36:50 PM

Australia’s lab-confirmed rates are around double last year’s, and the WHO has said threat of pandemic is not a question of if, but when.

Man coughing
There have been more than 17,000 confirmed cases of influenza in Australia so far in 2019.

This year has seen more than 17,000 confirmed cases of influenza in Australia at an average of around 28 per 100,000 people, including a young Victorian child who died last week.
VicHealth has described the situation as one of the largest summer outbreaks of flu the state has seen, while New South Wales and Queensland also appear to have been particularly hard hit.
The surge in influenza cases has prompted NSW Health to ask people with influenza symptoms to avoid visiting elderly relatives following eight outbreaks in aged care facilities in February.
‘Unusually high levels of influenza activity are being seen in most states and territories, with the national reporting rate more than three times the average for this time of year,’ NSW Health’s Communicable Diseases Branch Director, Dr Vicky Sheppeard, said.
‘Residents of aged care facilities will have little immunity left from last year’s flu vaccine, so it’s important to not expose them to the risk of influenza.’
The high numbers have coincided with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recently released Global Influenza Strategy 2019–2030, the goal of which is to prevent seasonal influenza, control the spread of the virus from animals to humans, and prepare for the next pandemic.
Upon releasing the strategy, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the threat of an influenza pandemic is ‘ever-present’ and urged countries to be ready.
‘The ongoing risk of a new influenza virus transmitting from animals to humans and potentially causing a pandemic is real,’ he said.
‘The question is not if we will have another pandemic, but when.
‘We must be vigilant and prepared – the cost of a major influenza outbreak will far outweigh the price of prevention.’
Dr Mark Morgan, Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Quality Care, said GPs will likely be the first to detect any outbreak and would play a central role in the event of a pandemic.
‘We need systems that can examine de-identified “reason for visit” to pick up the early warning signs of an outbreak. The technology exists, but the systems are not yet in place,’ he told newsGP.
‘GPs will be essential in the management of any pandemic because GPs are the trusted source of advice for our patients.
‘General practice has the infrastructure to roll out management programs at scale. The public health departments and Department of Health need to be aware of this vital role, and health funders need to have the autonomy and flexibility to rapidly support general practice in this role.’

While GPs have a key role in providing immunisations, Dr Mark Morgan warns it is ‘far from certain’ how helpful seasonal immunisation is at preventing pandemic influenza. (Image: Stefan Postles)

Dr Morgan also said GPs have an existing role in reducing the impact of seasonal influenza because they coordinate and administer the bulk of influenza immunisation to high-risk patients.
However, he added it is ‘far from certain’ how helpful seasonal immunisation is at preventing pandemic influenza and advised GPs to familiarise themselves with the advice on preventing the spread of infection.
‘It is also helpful to have a named infection control person in the clinic who is responsible for keeping an eye on media and professional communications from public health departments,’ Dr Morgan said.
‘It is highly likely there will be another pandemic, but when and in what form is unpredictable.
‘Global spread of infection through air travel, high population densities and vulnerable populations all increase the risk.’
The WHO estimates there are around one billion global influenza cases each year, of which three to five million are severe, resulting in between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths.
The latest strategy is designed to build stronger country capacities for disease surveillance and preparedness, as well as improved tools to prevent, detect, control and treat influenza.
Dr Rob Hosking, Chair of the RACGP eHealth and Practice Systems Committee, told newsGP it is important to be ‘ever-mindful’ of the threat of pandemics and to have appropriate plans in place to manage any such event.
‘The important thing is to consider what your practice is going to do in the event of a pandemic,’ he said.
‘Some practices may choose to actually close down, and others will be willing to continue or merge with other practices to try and consolidate resources.
‘In a major pandemic, staff and doctors, and their families, are going to get affected as well, so you also have to plan what your response will be in the event that your practice is also affected.’

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