Influenza surveillance is critically flawed, experts warn

A recent analysis by a leading U.S. scientific journal determined that current global H5N1 avian influenza surveillance is critically flawed.

The journal Nature recently published an unnerving picture of how animal flu viruses are being monitored. The estimated 2010 world poultry population was 21 billion, but only 1,000 flu sequences were collected from a mere 400 avian virus isolates.

Many of the countries that have extremely large poultry and swine populations contributed few or no samples at all to surveillance efforts.

Nature reported that much of the surveillance is not sustained for an appropriate amount of time. It is often reactive or ad hoc in nature, conducted quickly in response to an outbreak or as part of a research project with a limited timeframe.

Ian Brown, the head of avian virology and mammalian influenza at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency lab in Weybridge, U.K., said that the overall lack of date is global problem.

Other flu experts said that the sorry state of surveillance efforts could be quickly remedied by relatively basic means, like the establishment of sentinel sites in regions most at risk.

Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, said that the cost of coordinated program would most likely be cheaper than the currently fragmented efforts, according to Nature.

No global body has taken responsibility for influenza surveillance in its entirety. The World Health Organization is responsible for the human side of the equation, but the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health are tasked with monitoring animals. The FAO generally concentrates on food security, while the OIE focuses on general animal health and trade.

"If, say, the WHO and the FAO were to construct an advisory framework, surveillance could probably be done much more systematically and efficiently," Farrar said, Nature reports.