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FLU WARNING: Future pandemic could kill MILLIONS as virus mutates

A future influenza pandemic could kill millions of people the World Health Organisation has warned – a century on from the Spanish flu outbreak which did just that.

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The NHS has been struggling to cope with the added burden posed by this winter’s Australian flu outbreak, and other countries, including the United States, France and China are facing similar problems as a WHO spokesman said worse could be around the corner.

He said: “In North America Influenza-like Illness (ILI) levels are similar to those seen in 2014-2015 season, which was the most severe season in recent years, and influenza A (H3N2) is the main circulating virus.

“In some Western European countries hospitalization rates have already reached high levels. It is difficult to predict when the influenza activity will peak or if it has already peaked.”

To further complicate matters, different strains of the virus were impacting in different countries, he explained.

One of the problems faced by health experts is the rapid rate at which viruses mutate.

The spokesman said: “We cannot know which viruses will circulate over the season and which virus will predominate. Because of continuous virus evolution, twice a year, the vaccine composition is revised to ensure it protects against most recent circulating strains.”

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Flu vaccine protects against three or four different flu viruses, depending on which vaccine a patient receives, but the WHO must make its recommendation as to which types of virus to target six to eight months in advance.  Hence, this decision was made almost a year ago, in February 2017.

Vaccine effectiveness (VE) varies from strain to strain – for example, against the H3N2 strain prevalent in this country, it is about 30 per cent, whereas against H1N1 strains, it is 60 per cent.

The spokesman said: “Yearly annual influenza epidemics are estimated to result in up to 650,000 respiratory deaths due to influenza. Another pandemic is inevitable, and it will most likely be influenza. The only known pathogen that will cause a pandemic with certainty is influenza.

“As we approach the 100 year mark since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed as many as 100 million people, we should be proud of all that has been achieved, like the more than 150 public health laboratories/institutions in more than 110 countries working together through the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS), but we still have much more to do, such as greater investments in pandemic preparedness, and research and development  on knowledge and technologies.

“The world is more interconnected than ever. Everyone is at greater risk of being swept up in the next pandemic. The consequences are real with far reaching humanitarian, social, political, economic and security implications.

“Nothing about influenza is predictable, including where the next pandemic might emerge, and which virus might be responsible. The world was fortunate that the 2009 pandemic was relatively mild, but such good fortune is no precedent.

“Advance planning and preparedness is key to mitigating the adverse outcomes of future pandemics. This includes building capacity to detect and respond to a public health emergency of international concern.”

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The first case of Spanish flu was identified at an army base in Kansas in the United States on March 11, 1918.

However, medical historians now trace the pandemic back to a military camp in Etaples in France in 1917, with 100,000 soldiers living in cramped conditions. They also believe the virus may have originated in East Asia or China.

It raged for much of 1918, infecting an estimated 500 million people, with an estimated worldwide death toll of between 50 and 100 million, and has been described as “the greatest medical holocaust in history”.

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