Complacency on infectious diseases could risk longevity gains

Nov 8, 2018 | NEWS

Complacency on infectious diseases could risk longevity gains

Experts in health and infectious diseases will today argue that a combination of antimicrobial resistance, complacency, austerity, climate change, urbanisation and migration are increasing the risk of infectious diseases and pandemics.

150 senior academics, policymakers and healthcare professionals will come together at the Science Museum tonight to explore what should be done to ensure that the world is prepared for the future. The debate, hosted by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) will take place alongside the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu, which infected about 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million people.

ILC will warn that alarmist or inaccurate reporting could also help spread fear or misinformation and undermine the prevention of future infectious diseases.

The “Spanish flu” was so called, not because Spain was most heavily impacted or was the origin of the disease, but because most countries involved in the First World War controlled the spread of information through censorship. The neutrality of Spain led to them publishing impartial and accurate information about the disease.

The event is part of a global programme, talking to experts across the world about what policy and practice interventions will best minimise the risks to health and longevity of future infectious diseases. Through the programme, ILC will explore what the lessons of the Spanish Flu can teach us about the future and how we can recognise and respond quicker to events that will shape the experiences of generation ahead of us.

At the event, David Sinclair, ILC Director will say:

“The Spanish flu shaped the profile of a generation, their demographics but also their health profile.  100 years on, it is vital that we do not become complacent about infectious diseases.

We must learn the lessons from this deadly disease to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Reporting on science should be clear, transparent and evidence based. There is no space for fake news if we are to be best prepared.

Policymakers must not rest on their laurels. Antimicrobial Resistance is a real threat and vaccination across the lifecourse should be our first line of defence.”

Also participating in the event, Steven Baxter, Head of Longevity Innovation & Research, Hymans Robertson LLP will say:

“The Spanish Flu traversed the world owing to the mass movement of troops between continents. One hundred years on, that widespread, devastating infection rate is a warning of the potential for pandemic in our globally connected world.

A modern day antibiotic resistant pandemic would have far reaching impact. Immediate effects of huge morbidity, loss of economic productivity, massive strain on health systems and potentially material loss of life are obvious. But there are also likely to be longer term effects. The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 resulted in a generation resilient to the H1N1 flu strain, but heightened susceptibility to other flu strains. It also left a legacy respiratory and cardiovascular weaknesses within younger suffers believed to have manifested many decades later. 

Just as viruses adapt – we must adapt to today’s challenges if we want to maintain our current levels of health and longevity.”

Nicola Oliver, Medical Director of Medical Intelligence will add:

“Had antibiotics been available during the 1918 influenza pandemic, many deaths may have been averted as the majority of deaths resulted from secondary bacterial pneumonia.

But as a consequence of growing antibiotic failure, there is a real concern that we will be faced with similar challenges in a future pandemic rather than the alternative ideal scenario.

It is imperative that antibiotic stewardship is a concept that is in the public domain, similarly, acknowledging that reliance on antibiotics alone to safeguard our future cannot be the only route. Greater support needs to be given to those who are exploring alternatives to antibiotics not just in preparedness for any future pandemic event, but across the healthcare spectrum.”

Helen Donovan, Professional Lead for Public Health Nursing at the Royal College of Nursing added

“100 years ago it was a relatively common occurrence for children to die in infancy because of infectious diseases.

Until the mid-20th century, measles was a leading killer of children. It is estimated that More than 1 in 5 of all child deaths averted have been due to measles vaccination. Since a measles vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1968, Public Health England estimates that 20 million measles cases and 4,500 deaths have been averted in the UK.

Before the diphtheria vaccine was introduced in 1941 there were over 50,000 cases and in 2014 there was just one confirmed case.

However, this year the data from the NHS on uptake in childhood vaccination against a number of vaccinations routinely given has shown a decline for the 4th year in a row. It is slight but the fact that it is declining after several years of increase is a concern. People no longer see the infections as a major issue and are more concerned by social medial reports of potential vaccine risks, fuelling vaccine hesitancy. The issue for us therefore is how to tackle the growing complacency about the risks of infectious diseases and the risk of outbreaks of these infections occurring again.”

At the event, Natasha McEnroe, Keeper of Medicine at the Science Museum will highlight the role museums can play in relation to awareness about health and wellbeing and how we can best learn from the lessons of the past. She will set out why there is so little material culture around the Spanish flu and how historic material impacts how we collect today.


Lily Parsey: 020 7340 0440 or 07531 164886.

Notes to Editor

ILC published a blog earlier this year, setting out our concerns about the future of infectious diseases:

The International Longevity Centre (ILC) is today hosting a UK debate as part of a series of global debates on the future of infectious diseases.

The Future of Infectious Diseases: 100 years of the Spanish Flu will take place on Thursday 8 November 2018 (6.30pm (for 7.00pm) – 8.00pm) at The Science Museum. To register contact Lily Parsey 

More details:

Other debates will take place in Toronto, Boston and one other city.

ILC’s work on the 100th Anniversary of the Spanish Flu has been supported via a charitable donation from Pfizer Ltd

Key facts

Whilst progress has been made over the past century, infectious diseases still pose a significant risk to health.

  • The 2009 H1N1 Pandemic saw between 150,000 and 500,000 deaths globally
  • Pneumonia and the flu remain to be the biggest infectious disease killers in the US, accounting for ca. 40% of deaths from infectious diseases
  • From 1980-1995, there was an increase in death rate due to infectious diseases – especially HIV

Low-income countries are disproportionately affected:

  • In 2010, infections still caused the majority of deaths in low-income countries
  • An estimated 2.4 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation
  • The burden of infectious diseases, including pneumonia, HIV, TB and malaria, remains