H1N1 Preparedness: Vaccines & Social Media, Tackling Pandemic on Multiple Fronts

CafeSentido.com :: The influenza A/H1N1 virus, popularly known as “swine flu” was officially declared a pandemic in June. Shortly after the pandemic declaration, it was confirmed that H1N1 was confirmed in human patients in 74 countries. In the 5 weeks since then, it has spread rapidly and is now confirmed to have caused human infection in 140 countries.

In a CDC conference call, on 11 June 2009, officials reported:

Our U.S. situation, we are continuing to see ongoing transmission of this novel virus.  The virus has reached every state in the country.  Many of the states are seeing decreases in illness but there are a couple of areas where influenza-like illness is still above the baseline for this time of year.  Our case counts, we’ve been increasing them every week at this point … There are over 1,000 people who have been hospitalized that have been reported to us.

13,000 cases of infection had been reported at that time. As of 16 July, the CDC is reporting 37,246 cases of human infection and 211 confirmed H1N1-related deaths. With nearly three times the number of confirmed cases in the US now as when the pandemic was announced, officials continue to express concern the virus may be far more widespread than notable cases of illness would indicate.

Authorities in North America, including Mexico, the United States and Canada, have been persistently pro-active and collaborative in preparing to confront outbreaks of the virus and combat the pandemic, though the WHO now says its global spread is “unstoppable”. The southern hemisphere is now entering its winter and the peak flu season, so officials there are mobilizing to diagnose and separate out cases of H1N1 infection, even as they work to vaccinate and protect against the regular annual flu strains.

Reports from around the world show government orders for large amounts of new H1N1 vaccines are fast on the rise. France has ordered 94 million doses from GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis and Novartis, spending nearly 1 billion €. Novartis is reported to be in talks with at least 35 governments.

No less than 50 governments have reportedly placed orders for significant numbers of doses of H1N1 vaccines. The WHO this week announced it was issuing guidelines that urge all governments to begin buying and stocking H1N1 vaccines. Financial analysts at JP Morgan have estimated Glaxo SmithKline to have taken over £800 million in orders to date.

Reuters reports the WHO now estimates the global market for H1N1 vaccine sales at somewhere between $10 billion and $20 billion. The windfall potential is so high, the WHO has formally requested that manufacturers reserve a portion of their future H1N1 vaccine production for low-cost sale to developing countries, in the interests of public health and combatting the pandemic.

The WHO estimates as many as 1 million people in the United States may be infected, though not all will fall ill. WHO guidelines advise governments to direct mass vaccinations to health workers and first-responders, then to prioritize which segment of the population may be at risk, should the total number of doses require such choices.

The CDC is using social media to help spread up-to-date information about the evolving pandemic and guidance on best-practice public health responses. As reported by the CDC itself:

To encourage information sharing, collaboration, and interactivity, CDC provides social media tools. Widgets, mobile information, online videos and the like reinforce and personalize messages, reach new audiences, and build a communication infrastructure based on open information exchange.

The use of widgets that can be installed and simply relay updates on the pandemic is a savvy innovation in public health information distribution, building on the communications innovations seen in last year’s presidential campaign and demonstrating a committed filtering-through of new media experimentation to increase government informational availability to the public.

There are “flu IQ” widgets, rss feeds, Twitter postings, information delivered through “micro-blogging”, and informational resources uniquely designed for mobile phones. The CDC social networking project also focuses on social networks, like Facebook, and informational videos and images, distributed through media networking sites like YouTube and Flickr.

The use of social media and embedded updatable distributed information resources (rss feeds, video and widgets) is an important and likely landmark innovation in the standard public policy approach for addressing public health issues like the H1N1 pandemic. Such tools can help promote an active and real-time “conversation” across borders and around the world, to better develop effective measures of treatment, prevention and containment.