Health and Healthcare Systems

Human bird flu vaccines under development, plus the other health stories you need to know about

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Top health stories: human bird flu vaccines under development; Tanzania confirms presence of Marburg virus; and more.

Top health stories: human bird flu vaccines under development; Tanzania confirms presence of Marburg virus; and more. Image: REUTERS/Karoly Arvai

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • This global round-up brings you health stories from the past fortnight.
  • Top health stories: human bird flu vaccines under development; Tanzania confirms presence of Marburg virus; a Mediterranean diet could cut dementia risk by almost a quarter.

1. Big pharma prepares human bird flu vaccines

Some of the world's leading makers of flu vaccines say they could make hundreds of millions of bird flu shots for humans within months if a new strain of avian influenza ever jumps across the species divide. Three major vaccine manufacturers say they are already developing or about to test sample human vaccines that better match the circulating subtype, as a precautionary measure against a future pandemic.

One current outbreak of avian flu known as H5N1 clade 2.3.4.4b has killed record numbers of birds and infected mammals worldwide. Human cases, however, remain very rare, and global health officials have said the risk of transmission between humans is still low.

In a pandemic, vaccine manufacturers would shift production of seasonal flu vaccines and instead make shots tailored to the new outbreak when needed. They already have the capacity to make hundreds of millions of doses.
However, most of the potential human doses are earmarked for wealthy countries in long-standing preparedness contracts.

"We could potentially have a much worse problem with vaccine hoarding and vaccine nationalism in a flu outbreak than we saw with COVID,” said Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

The World Health Organization (WHO) say it has signed legally binding agreements with 14 manufacturers for 10% of their pandemic flu vaccine, in a mix of donated doses and doses to be bought by the agency at an affordable price. The UN agency says mechanisms were being developed “so that countries can work together – not in competition with each other” to respond to such a crisis.

2. Hygiene standards in over half of health facilities worldwide 'inadequate', says report

Half of healthcare facilities around the world do not have somewhere for staff and patients to wash their hands, a new report has found. That number rises to two-thirds in 46 least developed countries (LDCs), according to the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) on Antibiotics, and on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.

It says a lack of hygiene in healthcare settings is causing infectious diseases to spread and causing the consequent over-prescription of antibiotics. This is increasing levels of antibiotic resistance (AMR) which causes nearly five million deaths a year globally, more than HIV, breast cancer and malaria.

Graphic showing that drug-resistant infections are a leading cause of death worldwide.
Drug-resistant infections are a leading cause of death worldwide. Image: Water Aid

The report says "antibiotics are used to prevent and treat infections that could be prevented with adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Investing in these basic services in healthcare facilities decreases the demand for antibiotics, breaks the chain of infection and the opportunity for a resistant infection to become dominant."

The group of British MPs says the estimated cost of achieving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene services in the world's 46 least developed countries is $9.6 billion. It says this would be money well spent as the World Bank estimates the global increase in healthcare costs, in a "high-case scenario" of AMR prevalence, could range from $300 billion to over $1 trillion a year by 2050.

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3. News in brief: More health stories from around the world

Potentially deadly fungal infections with Candida auris are spreading rapidly in US healthcare facilities, with cases nearly doubling between 2020 and 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. The number of cases that were resistant to echinocandins, the class of drugs most often recommended for treatment of the disease, also tripled in 2021.

Maternal mortality rates rose 40% in 2021 in the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened a health crisis among pregnant women in the country, data from the CDC shows. UN agencies reported last month that nearly all parts of the world saw a spike in maternal mortality rates in 2020.

Tanzania has confirmed its first-ever cases of Marburg, the World Health Organization (WHO) says. Equatorial Guinea is also battling an outbreak of the disease, a high-fatality viral haemorrhagic fever with symptoms broadly similar to those of Ebola.

A gene variant which can heighten the risk of breast and ovarian cancer has been linked to people with origins in the UK's Orkney islands, the BBC reports. It says this is the first time that a geographical ancestral link has been established within the UK.

A Mediterranean diet could lower the risk of getting dementia by almost a quarter, The Guardian reports. It says research shows eating plant-based foods could protect against the disease, regardless of a person's genetic risk.

Just 13 countries and territories around the world had healthy air-quality levels in 2022, CNN reports. A new study focused on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) which was linked to an estimated 4.2 million deaths globally in 2016.

Smelling body odour on other people may help social anxiety therapy according to a Swedish study, Sky News reports. Female patients who completed a mindfulness session while exposed to body odours reported a 39% reduction in levels of social anxiety.

Drugs that combat obesity could for the first time be included on the World Health Organization's "essential medicines list", used to guide government purchasing decisions in low- and middle-income countries, the UN agency told Reuters.

Scientists in the US are trialling powdered vaccines that can be delivered into the body via a puff of air. The 'MOF-Jet', a system driven by compressed gas, could deliver therapeutics against cancer and other diseases in a relatively painless way, reports the American Chemical Society.

4. More on health from Agenda

Despite the huge amount of research that’s happened to date, there’s not been much success in treating and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Here, an expert explains new research which suggests that damage to mitochondria (the energy-producing structures within cells) could actually be the cause.

Changing our sleeping habits could add years to our lives. As much as almost five years for men and 2.5 for women, according to a new US study.

Data is a powerful weapon to fight the global infectious diseases problem. A new research tool collects data on infectious diseases which is being made available to researchers worldwide.

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