For 70 Years, Dozens Of Countries Have Worked Together Against The Flu. Here’s How

In 1918, when the notorious Spanish flu started to sweep through the world, there was very little physicians could do to help those infected. A century later, things have radically changed.

This is partially due to a network of laboratories in dozens of countries that for the past 70 years have been collaborating to fight influenza.

“After the Second World War, there were efforts to try and build up virological surveillance on the viruses that were out there to see if it was possible to build up a global picture of what the virus is, instead of just counting influenza deaths,” Professor John McCauley says during the latest episode of the “Global Health Matters” podcast with host Garry Aslanyan.

McCauley is the director of the Worldwide Influenza Centre at the Francis Crick Institute in the United Kingdom. He joines Aslanyan together with Professor Mahmudur Rahman, former director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research and the National Influenza Centre in Bangladesh.

The episode was produced in partnership with the World Health Organization’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System, also known by its acronym, GISRS, to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

“Annually, around a billion people get seasonal influenza, and the threat of a pandemic is always lurking on the horizon as viruses keep evolving,” says Aslanyan. “To safeguard and protect us from these public health threats, year-round surveillance is being conducted by GISRS.”

In the late 1940s, the network included only 20 to 30 laboratories. Today it has grown to include some 150 labs in 127 countries.

GISRS’ work has also had a deep impact on how individual countries have been carrying out surveillance against the flu.

Rahman shares the experience of Bangladesh.

“We developed our laboratory so that we can also have a look into the circulating influenza virus, and what is happening in the country,” he explains. “After that, we set up 12 centre sites across the country, and we were collecting data on a regular basis to understand what was happening.”

This allowed Bangladesh to appreciate how its influenza season is different from those of other countries.

“Over the years we have developed our capacity with the support of business and CDC,” he adds. “When COVID came in, we could easily and quickly diagnose COVID also in this country very quickly in our laboratory.”

According to McCauley, it is crucial to remember that influenza is a global threat and therefore international collaboration is essential.

“What we are looking at is a global threat, and so what we need to do is build up a global picture,” he says. “It is not isolated events, these events are linked because flu spreads really quickly. And so when you get a flu virus establishing in one place, basically, we’ve seen it time and again, within a year that virus has gone all around the world.”

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Image Credits: TDR.

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