A sub-regional training workshop for health surveillance and laboratory professionals aiming at strengthening influenza surveillance in the Pacific was held in Suva (Fiji) last week.Surveillance and laboratory professionals from thirteen Pacific countries, together with regional experts, reviewed existing national systems, identified challenges and discussed ways to strengthen the syndromic and virological surveillance of influenza.
The five-day training workshop, which took place from 6-10 August, was organised by the Pacific Community, together with Fiji Centre for Communicable Disease Control, WHO and the Pacific Paramedical Training Centre. It was held under the framework of the Pacific Public Health Surveillance Network, with financial support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses which circulate in all parts of the world, including in the Pacific. Two types of influenza viruses (A and B) can cause seasonal epidemics and in rare occasions the emergence of new influenza A viruses can cause widespread epidemics, called pandemics. In 1918, a serious pandemic, known as the Spanish flu, swept across the region (with approximately 22% of the population in Samoa wiped out, and 5-6% in Fiji).
Speaking at the workshop, SPC Acting Deputy Director of the Public Health Division, Dr Salanieta Saketa said that ‘most Pacific countries collect weekly data on influenza-like illness syndrome (signs and symptoms of influenza) but variable data and information is available on the influenza viruses circulating in the region.’
An expert, senior virologist, from WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Dr Patrick Reading explained that 'It is critical to closely monitor and identify influenza virus strains circulating in each part of the world, as this contributes to the production of effective vaccines whose composition must be updated regularly. It also helps to identify new viruses with pandemic potential rapidly.'
One of the most common problems encountered by countries was insufficient collection of samples from patients to identify circulating influenza and other respiratory viruses. A step-by-step demonstration on the proper technique for collecting nasopharyngeal swap specimens from patients was organised on the second day of the workshop.
Participants also gained knowledge in clinical and epidemiological aspects of influenza-like illness and severe acute respiratory infections, case definitions, diagnostic techniques, prevention, vaccinations, surveillance, preparedness and response to influenza outbreaks and pandemics. Laboratory participants received specific training in practical laboratory diagnostic techniques at Fiji Centre for Communicable Disease Control.
Christelle Lepers, SPC Surveillance Information and Communication Officer, Public Health Division, christellel [at] spc.int
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