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Fighting the Flu: Global Partnerships Suggest Solutions to Global Problem

February 7, 2019

I never would have guessed that I would have a passion for working on influenza research. After all, I am a maternal and child health (MCH) epidemiologist by training, and the bulk of my experience a decade ago was in child and adolescent mental health.

However, during the 2009-10 influenza pandemic, pregnant women were hospitalized and dying from flu-related complications at an alarmingly high rate. The public was scared. Researchers and clinicians were puzzled because these critically ill—yet otherwise healthy—women were not among either the very young or elderly populations that the flu traditionally impacted the most. Here was my chance to get involved in something new, yet also relevant to my beloved field of MCH! 

Not surprisingly, the high rates of hospitalization and death in the 2009 pandemic provided a renewed sense of urgency to influenza research and messaging about the importance of flu vaccination. At that time, Abt joined the research effort as a clinical coordinating center for two studies of high-risk populations. We have since greatly expanded our capabilities and expertise. We now support:

  • Clinical research on vaccine effectiveness.
  • Surveillance on flu vaccination coverage among high risk populations, including pregnant women.
  • Oversight and support of pandemic preparation activities.
  • Coordination of an immunogenicity trial comparing various types of influenza vaccines on the market.
  • Development and implementation of cognitive computing methods for systematic processing of large volumes of quantitative and qualitative vaccine data.

While involved in these exciting, timely and important projects, I have had the good fortune to learn from many of the leaders in flu research across the globe. I have come to recognize the successes and challenges facing not only influenza researchers but also the general population and the clinicians who care for them. For example, I now appreciate more thoroughly why it is so difficult to develop a vaccine that more closely matches the ever-evolving influenza strains circulating in a given season.

I better understand that our clients and clinicians struggle with the best way to encourage vaccination in an increasingly anti-vaccination atmosphere. That task is all the more challenging when the annual vaccine effectiveness rate is far from straight-forward and frankly never seems to be very convincing to the general public. And I appreciate the difficult task of tweaking flu vaccination messages, year after year, in the hope of achieving the vaccination rates outlined in Healthy People 2020.

It is often said in the influenza research and clinical community that it is not a question of if but, rather, when the next influenza pandemic will occur. With a global community comes the ever-increased risk of the rapid spread and far-reaching devastation of a novel virus. However, that same global community enables researchers with a passion for influenza research to come together to share knowledge and data.

Abt, for example, recently facilitated and supported the formation of PREVENT, a multi-country Pregnancy Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network to examine flu incidence, vaccine effectiveness and associated outcomes among pregnant women. This collaboration promotes comprehensive and accurate flu surveillance as well as studies with larger sample sizes that are more generalizable to the greater population.

Studies such as these help us understand the best way to prevent flu and poor health outcomes among those most at risk. The global village is thus a double-edged sword for influenza and influenza research. It makes the future both unpredictable and extremely hopeful. My colleagues and I are making every effort to ensure that knowledge and appropriate vaccinations are disseminated around the world faster than the influenza virus.

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