Bird Flu: Panic, Pandemics and Planning

A steady stream of reports about bird flu infection cases in China over the past month has given way in the past couple of days to panicked confirmations of deaths (27 as of today) and doom-laden projections about what may lay ahead. The new H7N9 strain of avian influenza in China is causing much conjecture about animal-to-human and human-to-human infection and how the spread of this deadly disease can be stopped. But, how might we have better planned for this outbreak in the first place?

“Preparing for flu is simply not just about flu; it is just as much – if not more so – about the interventions that we need to implement in order to manage a pandemic,” wrote Professors Ian Scoones, Melissa Leach and Stefan Elbe in a recent blog entitled Pandemic Flu Controversies: What have we learned? for the Huffington Post.

Scoones, Leach and Elbe argue that a better understanding of the social, political, institutional and policy dimensions of pandemic control and preparedness planning can help us deal more effectively with new outbreaks.

A recent workshop attended by 50 top pandemic flu experts explored lessons learned from past outbreaks about how the complex controversies surrounding pandemics and preparedness plans could be diminished or even avoided.

The best possible evidence for policies, being open about unclear evidence, insistence on transparency, the inclusion of diverse sources and forms of cross-disciplinary and local knowledge and expertise, and ensuring that risk communication remains measured and proportionate, to avoid backfiring warnings, were among the recommendations.

As the current avian flu crisis in China is revealing, an approach that includes new ways of working and new organizational mechanisms for assuring global health is urgently needed.

A recently-published briefing, Zoonoses: From Panic to Planning, from the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium sets out recommendations for a new, integrated ‘One Health’ approach to zoonoses (animal-to-human diseases) which moves away from top-down disease-focused interventions to putting people first, advocating collaboration between disciplines and between local, national and global scales.

The STEPS Centre has been working on pandemic flu for several years and a range of resources on the website might be useful to explore this subject, including film and video, papers, briefings and books.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.