This study reports that using serological data coupled with clinical surveillance data can provide real-time estimates of the infection attack rates and severity in an emerging influenza pandemic.
In an emerging influenza pandemic, estimating severity (the probability of a severe outcome, such as hospitalization, if infected) is a public health priority. As many influenza infections are subclinical, sero-surveillance is needed to allow reliable real-time estimates of infection attack rate (IAR) and severity.
Methods and Findings
We tested 14,766 sera collected during the first wave of the 2009 pandemic in Hong Kong using viral microneutralization. We estimated IAR and infection-hospitalization probability (IHP) from the serial cross-sectional serologic data and hospitalization data. Had our serologic data been available weekly in real time, we would have obtained reliable IHP estimates 1 wk after, 1–2 wk before, and 3 wk after epidemic peak for individuals aged 5–14 y, 15–29 y, and 30–59 y. The ratio of IAR to pre-existing seroprevalence, which decreased with age, was a major determinant for the timeliness of reliable estimates. If we began sero-surveillance 3 wk after community transmission was confirmed, with 150, 350, and 500 specimens per week for individuals aged 5–14 y, 15–19 y, and 20–29 y, respectively, we would have obtained reliable IHP estimates for these age groups 4 wk before the peak. For 30–59 y olds, even 800 specimens per week would not have generated reliable estimates until the peak because the ratio of IAR to pre-existing seroprevalence for this age group was low. The performance of serial cross-sectional sero-surveillance substantially deteriorates if test specificity is not near 100% or pre-existing seroprevalence is not near zero. These potential limitations could be mitigated by choosing a higher titer cutoff for seropositivity. If the epidemic doubling time is longer than 6 d, then serial cross-sectional sero-surveillance with 300 specimens per week would yield reliable estimates when IAR reaches around 6%–10%.
Serial cross-sectional serologic data together with clinical surveillance data can allow reliable real-time estimates of IAR and severity in an emerging pandemic. Sero-surveillance for pandemics should be considered.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every winter, millions of people catch influenza—a viral infection of the airways—and about half a million die as a result. These seasonal epidemics occur because small but frequent changes in the influenza virus mean that the immune response produced by infection with one year's virus provides only partial protection against the next year's virus. Occasionally, however, a very different influenza virus emerges to which people have virtually no immunity. Such viruses can start global epidemics (pandemics) and kill millions of people. The most recent influenza pandemic began in March 2009 in Mexico, when the first case of influenza caused by a new virus called pandemic A/H1N1 2009 (pdmH1N1) occurred. The virus spread rapidly despite strenuous efforts by national and international public health agencies to contain it, and on 11 June 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that an influenza pandemic was underway. By the time WHO announced that the pandemic was over (10 August 2010), pdmH1N1 had killed more than 18,000 people.
Why Was This Study Done?
Early in the 2009 influenza pandemic, as in any emerging pandemic, reliable estimates of pdmH1N1's transmissibility (how easily it spreads between people) and severity (the proportion of infected people who needed hospital treatment) were urgently needed to help public health officials plan their response to the pandemic and advise the public about the threat to their health. Because infection with an influenza virus does not always make people ill, the only way to determine the true size and severity of an influenza outbreak is to monitor the occurrence of antibodies (proteins made by the immune system in response to infections) to the influenza virus in the population—so-called serologic surveillance. In this study, the researchers developed a method that uses serologic data to provide real-time estimates of the infection attack rate (IAR; the cumulative occurrence of new infections in a population) and the infection-hospitalization probability (IHP; the proportion of affected individuals that needs to be hospitalized) during an influenza pandemic.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers tested nearly 15,000 serum samples collected in Hong Kong during the first wave of the 2009 pandemic for antibodies to pdmH1N1 and then used a mathematical approach called convolution to estimate IAR and IHP from these serologic data and hospitalization data. They report that if the serological data had been available weekly in real time, they would have been able to obtain reliable estimates of IAR and IHP by one week after, one to two weeks before, and three weeks after the pandemic peak for 5–14 year olds, 15–29 year olds, and 30–59 year olds, respectively. If serologic surveillance had begun three weeks after confirmation of community transmission of pdmH1N1, sample sizes of 150, 350, and 500 specimens per week from 5–14 year olds, 15–19 year olds, and 20–29 year olds, respectively, would have been sufficient to obtain reliable IAR and IHP estimates four weeks before the pandemic peak. However, for 30–59 year olds, even 800 specimens per week would not have generated reliable estimates because of pre-existing antibodies to an H1N1 virus in this age group. Finally, computer simulations of future pandemics indicate that serologic surveillance with 300 serum specimens per week would yield reliable estimates of IAR and IHP as soon as the true IAR reached about 6%.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that serologic data together with clinical surveillance data could be used to provide reliable real-time estimates of IARs and severity in an emerging influenza pandemic. Although the number of samples needed to provide accurate estimates of IAR and IHP in real life may vary somewhat from those reported here because of limitations in the design of this study, these findings nevertheless suggest that the level of testing capacity needed to provide real-time estimates of IAR and IHP during an emerging influenza pandemic should be logistically feasible for most developed countries. Moreover, collection of serologic surveillance data from any major city affected early in an epidemic could potentially provide information of global relevance for public health. Thus, the researchers conclude, serologic monitoring should be included in future plans for influenza pandemic preparedness and response and in planning for other pandemics.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001103.
A recent PLoS Medicine Research Article by Riley et al. provides further information on patterns of infection with the pdmH1N1 virus
The Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection provides information on pandemic H1N1 influenza
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about influenza for patients and professionals, including specific information on H1N1 influenza
Flu.gov, a US government website, provides access to information on seasonal, pandemic, and H1N1 influenza
WHO provides information on seasonal influenza and has information on the global response to H1N1 influenza (in several languages)
The UK Health Protection Agency provides information on pandemic influenza and on H1N1 influenza
More information for patients about H1N1 influenza is available through Choices, an information resource provided by the UK National Health Service