Health and Healthcare Systems

Influenza, COVID clusters and air travel: WHO briefing

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) attends the signing of the memorandum of understanding between WHO and the WHO Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, May 27, 2020.  Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY - RC26XG97ZKPF

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had a warning about flu. Image: VIA REUTERS

Joe Myers
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COVID-19

  • The World Health Organization held a media briefing on 15 June, to update the public on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned about the risks of losing sight of other public health issues - specifically influenza.
  • There's been a new cluster of cases reported in Beijing and more detail on international travel will be released in the coming days.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) media briefing on 15 June opened with a warning from the Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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"Despite the ongoing global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot lose sight of other significant public health issues, including influenza," he cautioned.

A global health surveillance and response system, that has been in place since 1952, is now seeing significant challenges because of the crisis. "Surveillance is suspended or declining in many countries," explained Dr Tedros, "with a sharp decline in sharing of influenza information and viruses because of the COVID-19 pandemic."

These disruptions could have significant impacts, including loss of capacity to detect new viruses with pandemic potential and for the development of new flu vaccines.

It's vital that countries optimize the use of their existing systems for surveillance and monitoring, added Dr Wenqing Zhang, Director of the WHO's Global Influenza programme.

"The Southern Hemisphere flu season is already underway," concluded Dr Tedros. "There is no time to lose."

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A cluster in Beijing

The WHO are offering their support to Chinese authorities, following a new cluster of outbreaks in Beijing. The outbreak comes more than 50 days after the city last reported a new case, with more than 100 now confirmed.

"When you spent over 50 days without having an significant local transmission, a cluster like this is a concern," explained Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

It's crucial to understand the reasons for any clustering, in Beijing or any location, said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's COVID-19 Technical Lead.

"It's important for us to make models about what might be happening, but the answers lie in careful, systematic, exhaustive investigation of disease clusters to really look at what is happening in these situations," added Dr Ryan.

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Air travel

The briefing team was also asked about air travel and the latest advice. There'll be more detail in the coming days around international travel, explained Dr Ryan. But he added that the WHO have been working closely with the International Civil Aviation Authority and the International Air Travel Association.

"The key issue is what the traveller themselves can do to protect their own health," he said, "and then what the authorities can do with airports or on aircraft to reduce the risk of transmission."

The ability to track and trace people after travel will also be vital, he added. "We must recognize that it can't be made 100% safe and therefore we need the capacity to track, trace people after they may have been exposed, so we can follow up and break any chain of transmission."

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