Why predicting the next influenza pandemic is difficult and how scientists can best prepare

May 08, 2007

WHAT: In planning for a future influenza pandemic, most experts agree that two things are known for certain--there will be another pandemic someday, and nobody can predict when. In a commentary in the May 9, 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists at the National Institutes of Health discuss why predicting the next pandemic is so difficult and outline steps that can be taken to better understand the behavior of the virus. Drawing upon the lessons of past pandemics, the authors analyze the significance of the highly pathogenic avian influenza strain H5N1, which has spread among bird populations and infected hundreds of humans in the last decade. In preparing for the next influenza pandemic, however, the authors argue that researchers and public health officials should not focus solely on H5N1 strains, because the next pandemic might be caused by a different influenza virus.

Instead, research efforts should go beyond H5N1 and focus broadly on influenza viruses. This entails improving our knowledge of the basic biological and ecological means by which influenza A viruses infect birds; enhancing surveillance of infected animals and the circulation of influenza virus globally; understanding how the virus evolves and jumps from birds and other animals to humans; finding new approaches to vaccine design and vaccination; and developing new antivirals and diagnostics. Such broad activities can also help combat seasonal influenza, which is a major public health concern in the United States, accounting for an estimated 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations each year.
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ARTICLE: "The next influenza pandemic: can it be predicted?" by J Taubenberger, D Morens and A Fauci. JAMA DOI: 10.1001/jama.297.18.2025 (2007).

SPOKESPERSONS: Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID director; Jeffery K. Taubenberger, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator in the NIAID Laboratory of Infectious Diseases; and David M. Morens, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at NIAID.

NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria and illness from potential agents of bioterrorism. NIAID also supports research on basic immunology, transplantation and immune-related disorders, including autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)--The Nation's Medical Research Agency--includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.

Visit www.PandemicFlu.gov for one-stop access to U.S. Government information on avian and pandemic flu.

NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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