New WHO Global Influenza Strategy Aims to Strengthen Country Response

The World Health Organization today launched a new influenza strategy that takes a more holistic approach to protecting people worldwide from deadly flu threats. The Global Influenza Strategy 2019-2030 aims to address both seasonal prevention and control of influenza, as well as preparedness for future pandemics, while building the capacity of countries to respond to the flu as well as other emerging infectious diseases.

The strategy emphasises that country capacity for disease surveillance, prevention, control, and preparedness should be reinforced as a package, while also ensuring continued investment in the development of better vaccines, diagnostics and medicines.

“With its focus on country impact, the strategy is aligned with the goals of WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work for achieving universal health coverage, addressing health emergencies and promoting healthier populations,” according to a WHO press release. This ambitious WHO workplan for 2019-2023 [pdf] aims to improve health of 3 billion people worldwide.

“Influenza remains one of the world’s greatest public health challenges. Every year across the globe, there are an estimated 1 billion cases, of which 3 to 5 million are severe cases, resulting in 290 000 to 650 000 influenza-related respiratory deaths,” the press release stated.

“With the partnerships and country-specific work we have been doing over the years, the world is better prepared than ever before for the next big outbreak, but we are still not prepared enough,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Dr Tedros) was quoted as saying in the release.

“This strategy aims to get us to that point. Fundamentally, it is about preparing health systems to manage shocks, and this only happens when health systems are strong and healthy themselves,” he said.

To achieve this, the strategy has two overarching goals, detailed in the release:

  • “Build stronger country capacities for disease surveillance and response, prevention and control, and preparedness… [including] a tailored influenza programme that contributes to national and global preparedness and health security.
  • Develop better tools to prevent, detect, control and treat influenza, such as more effective vaccines, antivirals and treatments, with the goal of making these accessible for all countries.”

“Many experts believe there is no greater public health threat than pandemic influenza,” Anne Moen, chief of Influenza Preparedness and Response at the WHO, said at a press conference today launching the strategy.

Such a pandemic “would be global in nature, it would travel around the world in a matter of weeks and months, and it would affect every single country – it wouldn’t be regionalized. It would basically be devastating to public health. It would be devastating to our economies, and to our societies,” she said.

“More Of The Same Is Not Enough”

The WHO’s new strategy follows its Global Action Plan for Influenza Vaccines, which ran from 2006 to 2016. It was developed in response to the 2006 H1N1 influenza scare, during a period in which many developing countries realised they lacked sufficient access to vaccines. That plan focused on establishing vaccine production capacity in developing countries, Martin Friede, coordinator in the Department for Immunization Vaccines and Biologicals at the WHO, explained at the press conference.

While greater access to vaccines was achieved, the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic (also known as avian flu), underlined other problems: significant gaps in preparedness to deploy these vaccines.

“So after ten years of the Global Action Plan on Influenza Vaccines, I think what we can say is ‘more of the same is not enough,’” Friede said. “We have made progress. The world is better prepared than we were in 2006, but we are still not prepared enough.”

The new strategy builds off of the WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS), described in the press release as the “backbone of the global alert system for influenza.”

Also important to the success of the strategy is the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, which according to the release is “a unique access and benefit sharing system that supports the sharing of potentially pandemic viruses, provides access to life saving vaccines and treatments in the event of a pandemic and supports the building of pandemic preparedness capacities in countries through partnership contributions from industry.”

“Successful implementation,” the report states, “will require WHO, countries and partners to integrate these priorities in their own policies, programmes and systems. In a world with limited resources and competing priorities, it is essential that all stakeholders build upon and align with current activities, and use common resources to promote sustainability.”

Image Credits: WHO/Tom Pietrasik.

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