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Emerging influenza viruses in animals still a threat to human health

Medical xray 

Tuesday 14 February 2012 9:26am

A top international influenza researcher, educated at the University of Otago, warns that public health officials responsible for the surveillance of influenza viruses should not be complacent about the development of new viruses that may spread from the animal world to humans.

Dr Richard Webby from the St Jude Centre of Excellence for Influenza Research in Memphis, USA is one of the keynote speakers at the University of Otago, Wellington’s Public Health Summer School (February 7-24). He is an expert on the interface between animals and humans in relation to influenza viruses.

Webby was closely involved in the development of the first H5N1 bird flu vaccine in response to the global threat posed by this virus in 2004, and is director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza.

He says that health professionals and health systems world-wide need to remain vigilant regarding the development of rogue influenza viruses which jump from animals to humans, and then more dangerously may be able to spread from human to human causing a pandemic.

“The risks have not diminished one iota. In the past 12 months alone we have seen multiple confirmed human infections from three new animal influenza viruses; two from birds and one from pigs,” he says.

“However recent research suggests that these viruses have not yet developed the ability to transmit between humans, but it’s still possible.”

Dr Webby says that viruses which have been found in humans continue also to increase their activity in poultry and pig populations in some regions of the world and the increase of new viruses is of concern.

“Viruses are very, very clever, infinitely adaptable and unpredictable. We saw this in 2009 when all the focus was on avian viruses in Asia, but then the swine flu virus suddenly transmitted to humans in Mexico.”

Webby is presenting a public lecture which will highlight the risks to human health of emerging influenza viruses which have the capacity to kill millions world-wide.

Dr Webby’s visit will also be a significant contribution to the Public Health Summer School at the University of Otago, Wellington. The School is aimed at health professionals and others in the public sector. It will be a chance to hear the most authoritative and up-to-date developments and research into influenza control and pandemic planning from an international expert.

The School seminar, “The Science of Influenza Surveillance and Control”, runs today and will see a range of authoritative speakers address public health professionals and others from the public sector.

The Summer School is an opportunity for professional development in a number of public health areas, including raising awareness on influenza pandemic planning and contributing to workforce development.

Dr Webby is visiting New Zealand to also meet with SHIVERS (Southern Hemisphere Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Research and Surveillance) project researchers who are investigating internationally important questions about influenza, including its impact on hospital admissions and the effectiveness of current influenza vaccines.

The research has been commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. It is led and coordinated by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), in close collaboration with the Universities of Otago and Auckland, the Auckland and Counties Manukau District Health Boards, and Dr Webby’s St Jude Centre.

Dr Webby’s free public lecture, “Emerging influenza viruses in the animal world: should humans be worried?” is being held at 5pm this evening at the University of Otago, Wellington, Mein Street, Newtown. No registration required.

For further information

For further information and to interview Dr Richard Webby contact:

Mary-Lou Harris
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel +64 4 918 6833

For information about influenza and the Summer School seminar on “The Science of Influenza Surveillance and Control”, contact:

Associate Professor Michael Baker
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel +64 4 918 6802

For additional information on SHIVERSm, refer to:

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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