World must prepare for ‘inevitable’ next flu pandemic, warns WHO

The World Health Organisation has claimed we are not adequately prepared for a global flu pandemic, with experts saying it “is a matter of when, not if”.

In a statement issued earlier today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus claimed the threat of pandemic influenza was “ever present”, warning the public not to underestimate the risks.

He said: “We must be vigilant and prepared – the cost of a major influenza outbreak will far outweigh the price of prevention.”

The last flu pandemic to strike was caused by the H1N1 virus – also known as influenza A – that spread across the world during 2009 and 2010.

According to studies of that pandemic, at least one in five people worldwide were infected during the first year, and is estimated to have caused between 100,000 and 400,000 deaths globally in the same time.

Global health experts and the WHO warn there is a risk that a more deadly flu virus will one day jump from animals to people, mutate and infect many hundreds of thousands of people.

Flu viruses are multiple and ever-changing, and they infect around a billion people every year around the world in seasonal outbreaks.

Of those infections, around 3 to 5 million are severe cases, leading to between 290,000 and 650,000 seasonal flu-related respiratory deaths.

Vaccines can help prevent some cases, and the WHO recommends annual vaccination – especially for people working in health care and for vulnerable people such as the old, the very young and people with underlying illness.

The World Health Organisation’s plan – described as the most comprehensive to date – includes measures to protect the public as much as possible from annual outbreaks of seasonal flu as well as preparing for a pandemic.

The plan’s two main goals are to to improve worldwide capacities for surveillance and response – by urging all governments to develop a national flu plan, and to develop better tools to prevent, detect, control and treat flu, such as more effective vaccines and antiviral drugs.

During a pandemic, there is little or no pre-existing immunity towards the virus in the human population.

Three influenza pandemics occurred at intervals of several decades during the 20th century, the most severe of which was the so-called "Spanish Flu”.

It is believed to have caused an estimated 20–50 million deaths in 1918–1919.

Milder pandemics occurred subsequently in 1957 and 1958 known as the "Asian Flu”, and the “Hong Kong Flu” in 1968 – they caused an estimated one to four million deaths each.

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