Pushing Back the Threat of Influenza
The publication of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s new Global Influenza Strategy gives us pause to reflect on where we currently stand in the fight against influenza and the challenges we face in preparing for inevitable future pandemics.
Outbreaks of influenza pose a real and critical threat to the social and economic wellbeing of our society. Each year, this highly contagious virus claims between 291,000 and 646,000 lives.1 That’s around one person every 60 seconds. Those most at risk for serious disease are the very young, pregnant and elderly, and those with a weakened immune system. The influenza season tends to peak in the winter months which may be a reference to its original Italian name, influenza di freddo, meaning “influence of the cold”.2
Reducing the burden of influenza is a complex challenge: the infection travels quickly and indiscriminately – geographical boundaries can no longer contain the virus. In our modern age of global travel, this virus can spread across countries and continents within hours. Seasonal vaccination against influenza is currently the most effective way to prevent infection and reduce the burden of disease. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report that vaccination reduces the risk of influenza related illness by only 40 to 60 percent among the overall population during the flu season.3 The current efficacy estimates for the 2018-2019 flu vaccine in the U.S. indicate only a 47 percent overall effectiveness.4 This highlights the need to find more effective ways to limit these outbreaks.
The WHO Global Influenza Strategy 2019-2030 aims to reduce the burden of flu and protect against future outbreaks and pandemics by way of several critical approaches, such as: supporting integrated influenza surveillance efforts, communicating influenza risks and complications, improving vaccination uptake, and supporting appropriate use of antiviral agents.
Janssen teams are working tirelessly to help reduce the burden of flu, through scientific innovation, education and advocacy. However, influenza is particularly difficult to eliminate due to the rapid evolutionary rate of the virus. Each year, new and distinct strains of the virus spread across communities and countries. Added to this, influenza has the ability to mutate, known as “antigenic drift” from season to season, making it hard to predict precisely which strains will strike.
Prevention of infections is preferable to treatment, however, while we search for a universal vaccine to protect against a wide range of strains of the virus, treatment remains a critical dimension of limiting the impact of influenza. Presently, treatment of influenza consists of antiviral medications that have been shown in clinical studies to shorten the disease course and reduce the severity of symptoms, but best results can only be achieved if taken within two days of infection. No therapy has been approved for treating influenza after the first two days, when influenza infection can become more complicated, causing more severe disease. Through the new global influenza strategy, the WHO directly calls for better tools to prevent, detect, control and treat influenza, such as more efficient vaccines and anti-viral drugs.
The need for new influenza treatments to overcome development of resistance to current options is clear. However, despite the great scientific strides made so far, much about the transmission of influenza remains unknown. When coupled with the constant source of new strains of infection, it is clear that much of the road towards an effective universal preventive vaccine still lies ahead, and the path forward will not be without its challenges.
At Janssen, we welcome these challenges. Our scientists are hard at work exploring multiple approaches to prevent and treat influenza A and B. We are fully committed to this complex undertaking that requires deep understanding of the transmission and pathogenesis of influenza, how our immune system responds to this virus, and the short-comings of the existing options for treatment and prevention. Only then can we make significant advancements to preparing the human race for the next influenza pandemic.
For more information on the WHO Global Influenza Strategy 2019-2030, click here.