Our study demonstrates that influenza virus infections are common etiologic agents of respiratory infection in a Southeast Asian refugee population living in crowded conditions. During the 6 months of surveillance in 2009, influenza A viruses were detected by rRT-PCR in 23% of clinical pneumonia and 20% of ILI cases sampled, representing a considerable impact that this vaccine-preventable disease has among patients with ARI.
Maela is an overcrowded and relatively closed refugee camp and therefore might be considered an ideal location for a novel influenza virus to cause an explosive outbreak. However, the number of confirmed cases indicated that no major outbreak occurred in 2009. After the first case of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 was identified in August, these cases increased modestly in September, then substantially declined during October. Overall, only 25% of all influenza A viruses were determined to be the pandemic strain. However, supportive data show a change of the predominant influenza virus. In late August 2009, seasonal influenza A (H1N1) was the predominant circulating virus; during the subsequent 2 months, only cases of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 were detected. During May–August, the incidence of LRTI and URTI in cases captured by the passive surveillance system was higher each month in 2009 than in 2008. The rates of URTI were similar in September and October of both years, whereas the LRTI rate was higher in October 2008 than in October 2009. Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 did not clearly increase in case-patients with ARI after its first detection in the camp in August 2009. However, surveillance did not capture mild infections that did not result in visits to the outpatient department.
The occurrence of most influenza A infections in patients who had pneumonia most likely reflects a sampling bias, although influenza is a generally underrecognized cause of pneumonia in the tropics (24
). ILI is not a routinely used diagnosis for the clinic staff at Maela, so most of the ILI case-patients likely were not interviewed and sampled. However, when influenza A was identified, pandemic (H1N1) 2009 case-patients were less likely than seasonal influenza case-patients to have been hospitalized. This information suggests that, in this population, illness caused by pandemic (H1N1) 2009 was no more severe than illness associated with seasonal influenza A. Several confounding factors, unrelated to the innate pathogenicity of the viruses, may account for this finding: 1) the timing of the modification of case definitions in relation to the appearance of pandemic (H1N1) 2009; 2) differences in age distribution; and 3) presence of underlying illnesses in the patient groups. Data regarding underlying medical conditions were not collected as part of this surveillance so the effect of other conditions cannot be assessed. To prevent spread of infection, public health systems may request persons with ILI to self-quarantine, which might result in underestimation of the number of cases identified in clinic- or hospital-based surveillance systems. During the 2009 influenza season, announcements regarding influenza and the need for good hygiene were made on the Maela public address system; healthcare workers reinforced these messages by home visits. Whether this intervention had any effect on health-seeking behavior remains unclear. An influenza triage system was in operation at the hospital, but our surveillance staff had access to patients seen and treated in this area.
Our study has several limitations. Most importantly, not every patient eligible for sampling was included, frequently because the patient refused or clinic staff failed to identify patients with illnesses that met the case criteria. These data were not recorded, so the effect of this bias cannot be estimated. As previously discussed, ILI is not a frequently used diagnosis outside this surveillance program, and most cases with this clinical syndrome were diagnosed as common cold. Many of the ILI cases documented were miscategorized in the clinic as pneumonia but were subsequently found not to meet the case definition, explaining the presence of persons hospitalized with ILI. Overall, these factors may bias toward sampling of case-patients who had more severe symptoms. Also, screening took place in only 1 of the 2 hospital outpatient clinics. However, because both are general clinics, the impact of this screening is likely to be reflected in the absolute number of cases detected rather than in the proportion of ILI and pneumonia cases caused by influenza viruses. Regarding laboratory data, the likelihood of confirmation of influenza infection is associated with the clinical case definitions in use: the strict ILI case definition used in our surveillance has a sensitivity of 98.4%–100% but a specificity of only 7.1%–12.9% (25
). In another study, the probability of having a positive influenza virus PCR was directly related to magnitude of fever (26
). Therefore, given the bias toward severe cases, we may have considerably underestimated the impact of influenza in Maela.
As a result of the limitations noted above, we could not directly calculate the incidence of influenza infections in the Maela population. Also, given the mobile nature of refugee populations, calculating accurate incidence rates is difficult, although the monthly census in Maela enabled generation of relatively accurate figures for this population. Therefore, because we detected an influenza virus in 23% of case-patients who had pneumonia during May–October 2009, we believe the virus may have been responsible for 7 pneumonia episodes per 1,000 population per month (32.4 cases × 23%), which equates to ≈900 influenza-associated pneumonia cases during the 3-month influenza season, largely because of seasonal influenza. For comparison, in 2 rural Thai provinces during 2008, influenza virus infection was associated with 18.4% of hospitalized case-patients who had clinical pneumonia (minimum incidence of 134.4/100,000 population) (27
). Given the likely health inequalities between our refugee population and rural provinces in Thailand, direct comparison of these datasets is difficult. However, the incidence of influenza-associated pneumonia in Maela was ≈5× higher than in the Thai provinces (27
Population structure, such as the number of young children and elderly persons, may account for some of this difference, because the incidence of influenza infection is highest in these age groups. As with ILI, the case definitions used may have affected the data or the use of different laboratory confirmation tests for influenza infection may have resulted in considerable variation in disease rates between studies; the study in Thailand used RT-PCR for laboratory confirmation. Although the rates of influenza-associated pneumonia were different in the refugee camp, the proportions of pneumonia cases associated with influenza were similar (23% vs. 18%).
Methods of preventing or mitigating influenza outbreaks in a community include vaccination; use of antiviral drugs; and basic infection control measures, particularly good respiratory etiquette, hand washing, and social distancing (28
). The World Health Organization has devised a specific influenza pandemic preparedness and mitigation plan for refugee and displaced populations, but implementation requires the coordinated efforts of healthcare providers (frequently nongovernmental organizations) and governments to ensure that control measures are available and used effectively (29
). Because resources are likely to be strained during an influenza pandemic, refugee and displaced populations might not be adequately represented in a country’s pandemic preparedness plan. Availability of items required to control influenza transmission (personal protective equipment, vaccines, and antiviral medication) may be limited for this population without robust planning at the local and national levels. In addition to pandemic preparedness, camp administrators and donor agencies should consider routine vaccination for seasonal influenza in these populations.
Continuation and refinement of this surveillance as the pandemic continues may provide further insight into the epidemiology of influenza in resource-poor rural Asian populations. Work such as this solidifies the need of inclusion of refugee populations in influenza vaccine strategies and pandemic planning.