The best way to prepare for a pandemic is to have a fully functioning seasonal influenza surveillance and vaccination program.
An important goal of PIVI is to improve access to seasonal influenza vaccine for high-risk groups in developing countries. Improving access means not only providing vaccine but also strengthening the health systems in the countries where PIVI is active. Strong health systems can better respond to not only seasonal influenza, but also to influenza pandemics.
In a pandemic situation, countries need to be able to quickly mobilize resources in order to respond effectively and efficiently to protect as many people as possible. Not only can a pandemic cause significant illness and even death among populations, it can also cause significant strain on economies as well as the healthcare system.
Consider the influenza pandemics in 1918 (“Spanish Flu”), 1957, and 1968, which killed approximately 40 million, 2 million, and 1 million people, respectively, around the world. In 2005, H5N1, or “bird flu,” struck. In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic was the catalyst for the creation of more robust national influenza policies as well as organizations and programs focused on seasonal and pandemic influenza response.
WHO notes that, “Influenza pandemics are unpredictable but recurring events that can have consequences on human health and economic well-being worldwide. Advance planning and preparedness are critical to help mitigate the impact of a pandemic.” Experience has shown that the best way to prepare for an influenza pandemic is to put in place a seasonal influenza vaccination program. Seasonal programs require the identification of all the necessary resources – including relevant government and nongovernment healthcare providers, laboratories, distribution sites, cold-chain facilities, and communications channels – that must be deployed in order to respond to a pandemic situation.
Individual countries are responsible for developing and deploying their own pandemic preparedness plans. The WHO Interim Guidance document recommends that countries “develop or strengthen national surveillance to collect up-to-date virological, epidemiological, and clinical information on trends in human seasonal influenza infections to aid estimates of additional capacities needed to detect increases in pandemic activity.” The Interim Guidance document also recommends that, particularly as a recovery activity after a pandemic, countries “work to increase seasonal influenza vaccine coverage levels of all groups at high risk, in accordance with national policy.”
PIVI helps its partner countries become better prepared to respond effectively and efficiently in the event of a pandemic in a number of ways. First, PIVI encourages partner countries to focus vaccination on high-risk groups. Second, PIVI encourages country partners to engage all relevant groups – from maternal and child health teams to EPI teams to nongovernmental organizations – in the planning and administration of the vaccine, thereby creating a network of organizations and individuals who are familiar with the roles and responsibilities they might have to take on in the event of a pandemic. Finally, PIVI helps countries identify where there are gaps in communication and knowledge so that those gaps can be addressed in advance of a pandemic situation, paving the way for a more positive public response in the event of a pandemic.