African health ministers and representatives of international agencies have gathered today in Marrakesh, Morocco, at a meeting organized by the United Nations and its partners to discuss the impact of influenza on the continent.
“We know that influenza has a significant impact on morbidity and mortality throughout Africa, but unfortunately, we don’t have a great deal of data that shows this,” said Keiji Fukuda, Special Adviser on Pandemic Influenza to the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Influenza is often seen as a problem for temperate countries,” he noted. “But it is also a major threat to health in developing countries, including countries in tropical zones.”
According to WHO, influenza viruses are important respiratory pathogens, and acute respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia, are a major cause of death in Africa, particularly among children.
There is a need to strengthen surveillance systems to assess the effect of the pandemic across the continent, the agency added.
“The absence of adequate information, lack of awareness of the disease and other competing public health needs has meant that no specific interventions have been developed to reduce the impact of influenza in Africa,” said Sylvie Briand, head of WHO’s Global Influenza Programme.
Therefore, a key objective of the Marrakesh meeting will be to raise awareness of the need to strengthen surveillance capacity in Africa. It also seeks to prepare a plan of interventions and strategies to reduce the burden of influenza in the region.
The two-day event is convening under the umbrella of the newly-created African Flu Alliance, an initiative that seeks to promote collaboration and the exchange of information among various actors in Africa and beyond.
In a related development, WHO has determined that, following the advice of its Emergency Committee which met on 1 June, the H1N1 influenza pandemic is expected to continue, even though the most intense pandemic activity has passed.
The agency added that the situation will be reassessed in mid-July when information from the winter influenza season in the Southern Hemisphere will be available.
“The Committee expressed the unanimous view that from a global perspective while pandemic activity is continuing, the period of most intense pandemic activity appears likely to have passed for many parts of the world,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a statement issued today.
“Committee members stressed that it remains critical for countries to continue to maintain vigilance concerning the pandemic, including all necessary public health measures for disease control as well as influenza virus and disease surveillance,” she added.
The statement also noted that the most active areas of pandemic influenza virus transmission are currently in tropical areas, primarily in parts of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, which are now experiencing a relatively low level of resurgence of cases after experiencing more intense activity during July 2009.
In temperate zones of the Southern Hemisphere, countries are not reporting increases in influenza activity above epidemic thresholds, or unusually early influenza activity.
In addition, pandemic influenza activity across Africa is “low or sporadic,” with data from West Africa indicating that the active transmission of pandemic influenza virus has largely subsided after peaking during February and March 2010.