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Experts Discuss Preparedness for Infectious Disease Outbreaks and Public Perception of Vaccines

Flu pandemics and other disease outbreaks underscore the need for vaccines and public health infrastructures to protect individuals against global health threats, said leaders representing government, scientific societies and advocacy groups at a briefing hosted by Research!America and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on May 21. The program coincided with the opening of the Smithsonian’s exhibit Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World. Seventy-percent of Americans say the federal government should do more to educate the public about global disease outbreaks and the risk to the U.S., according to a new national survey commissioned by Research!America and ASM. “It’s important for those who work with, and who oversee the government, to educate, surveil, and detect infectious diseases and communicate with the public what they need to know,” said Mary Woolley, president and CEO, Research!America.

The briefing was particularly relevant amid the worsening Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An overwhelming majority of Americans (95%) think infectious and emerging diseases facing other countries will pose a ‘major’ or ‘minor’ threat to the U.S. in the next few years. But only 34% of Americans believe that the U.S. is prepared to respond to another epidemic like Ebola. Working “effectively with the private sector and across the research stakeholder community” on research to tackle infectious disease is essential to prevent and contain epidemics, said Woolley.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, discussed progress with the development of a universal flu vaccine, which less than a quarter of Americans (21%) have heard about according to the survey. “Influenza is an RNA virus, and RNA viruses tend to mutate very readily. When you compare it to a virus like measles or polio or smallpox, they don’t change. So if you get a really good vaccine against them then you’re OK,” Fauci said. “Not so with influenza. It continues to evolve.” A universal flu vaccine would safeguard against multiple strains of the flu over time, including those that can cause pandemics, and eliminate the need for an annual flu shot.

Immunization is “one of the public health success stories of our century,” said Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Even for diseases for which we have less than perfect control, like pertussis, mumps and measles, we’re still preventing 90% of the cases that occurred a century ago,” Messonnier added.

In order to address emerging threats, collaboration and “public support for science and biomedical research is key to success,” said Stacey L. Schultz-Cherry, Ph.D., president, American Society for Virology. “It’s not a question of if there will be another outbreak but when. And what will it be? Will there be another 1918-like influenza virus? We have to learn how to communicate, build trust, and raise the resources, including new policies, to provide continual support for science.”  

Watch a recording of the event at https://cs.pn/2rZxVwR(link is external)Click here to view more survey data results.