A flu pandemic is wreaking havoc worldwide. Influenza infections are continuing to rise this year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is predicting that this year’s influenza strain will cause the highest rate of hospitalizations and deaths in ten years.
Global Flu Pandemic
This year is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic — the world’s worst flu outbreak in recorded history. Globally, the 1918 influenza pandemic was responsible for killing tens of millions of people.
Even though the United States has taken huge steps in preparing for and treating the flu, the public and healthcare providers are not as prepared as needed for the next pandemic.
In 1918, the influenza strain was most deadly because humanity’s exposure to the H1N1 strain of the virus was very limited. It was too much for our immune systems. In addition, the development of modern medical treatments and influenza vaccines were lacking, as well. And little was known about infection control strategies. Troop movements connected with World War I also fueled the spread of the disease.
Flu outbreaks have fluctuated in size since 1918. They have become less severe. Advances in science have made influenza more preventable and treatable. Today, public health officials have a better understanding on how to contain influenza outbreaks, avoiding flu pandemics, while lessening the harm.
Nevertheless, the flu is still an unrelenting global affliction. Each year, influenza kills an estimated 12,000 to 56,000 people in the U.S. — 291,000 to 646,000 people worldwide. And the influenza virus mutates rapidly — infecting other animals in addition to humans — allowing new viral combinations to surface and challenge our immune systems.
If a new strain of flu were to surface — similar to the 1918 virus – the world’s capacity to prevent a pandemic wouldn’t be able to handle it because we haven’t made adequate progress implementing preparedness plans, infrastructure, or science.
Here are three suggested ways for us to prepare for the next flu pandemic.
- Be prepared — Members of the health community and government officials need to be aware of the need to plan for a public health emergency in case of a flu pandemic. Many federal and state officials have prepared for a rapid upsurge in flu-related illness by conducting training exercises for healthcare workers. They are also stockpiling resources — like IV bags and Tamiflu. But these efforts vary wildly. Some states have expanded their healthcare workforce. In addition, states have developed ways and measures to keep people apart during outbreaks. They have also enacted other strategies that may help reduce the spread of influenza and lessen the impact of a severe outbreak. However, many plans are incomplete. After extraordinary disasters, funding tends to go up. But as time goes by — and the events fade from memory, funding has the tendency to dissipate. Moreover, many of the resources available for public health emergencies depend on the discretion of executive officials.
- Spot outbreaks early — In order to prevent a flu pandemic, public health officials need to be more informed about influenza outbreaks. Currently, the World Health Organization collects data on flu outbreaks from a variety of sources in 114 countries. However, a large amount of the data — and the funding — for global surveillance comes from the U.S. and other wealthy countries. This approach isn’t sufficient in detecting a flu pandemic strain quickly. New strains are most likely to surface in developing countries with dense populations and more frequent human-animal contact. And emerging infections can rapidly spread through the course of international travel and trade. Developing countries face disproportionately high rates of flu deaths and infections. A flu pandemic can easily emerge and spread quickly in crowded cities that have inadequate public health services and a limited ability to track infections. An expansion of surveillance systems should include more humans and animals in less wealthy countries. This expansion would allow officials to detect outbreaks much earlier. Additionally, it will track an infection more efficiently as it continues to spread.
- Develop stronger vaccines — Researchers need to improve the flu vaccine. The majority of flu vaccine production is dependent on outdated technology that requires experts to predict the most likely strains early each flu season. The process is very time-consuming. First, manufacturers have to grow the vaccine in chicken eggs. This process takes weeks and limits the ability to make adjustments to the vaccine during the flu season. However, efforts are underway to develop new technologies — including a universal flu vaccine that could last several years and protect against multiple strains of influenza A, including novel strains.
Flu symptoms often develop suddenly and may include muscle or body aches, chills, fever, sore throat, cough, runny/stuffy nose, headache and tiredness. Some people have diarrhea and vomiting, however, these later symptoms are more common in children.
The flu is different than a cold. The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but different viruses cause them. These two types of illnesses have similar symptoms. It can be difficult to tell the difference between them.
Generally, the flu is worse than the common cold. The flu can cause serious complications — such as pneumonia and other bacterial infections. In addition to diagnosing flu based on symptoms and clinical judgment, your healthcare provider may choose to do a diagnostic test — such as one using a sample from a nasal swab.
The CDC recommends the following prevention steps:
- Prevent the spread of germs — Wash your hands often with soap and water. Try to avoid close contact with sick people. The CDC also advises that flu droplets travel a distance of about 6 feet. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. If you don’t have a tissue, use your sleeve. Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes. Germs can easily spread this way. Clean objects and surfaces likely contaminated with germs.
- Get the flu vaccine — The CDC recommends getting a flu vaccine for those older than 6 months of age, every year. Please note: If you have an allergy to eggs or any ingredients of the vaccine, have ever had an illness called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or aren’t feeling well, talk to your doctor beforehand. Flu vaccines can reduce flu illnesses; prevent flu-related hospitalizations, doctor’s visits, and missed school or work. Flu vaccines do not cause the flu.
- Take antiviral medicines — Take antiviral medicines if your healthcare provider prescribes them. Antiviral medicines are different from antibiotics. If you get the flu, antiviral medicines can reduce the severity and duration of the flu. They can also help in preventing complications of the flu. These antiviral drugs work best if they’re taken within two days of getting sick. But they can also be helpful if they’re taken later.
- If you get very sick — Call your doctor if you get very sick, are 65 years or older, are pregnant, or are at high risk for flu-related complications. You might need antiviral drugs to treat flu.
- Drink plenty of water — Drink plenty of water and clear liquids to prevent fluid loss.
- Avoid close contact — Avoid close contact with those who are well, so you won’t make them sick.
- Stay at home and rest.
Although we have progressed since the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, the world remains unprepared for another influenza pandemic. An elevated level of attention and commitment is vital in preparation for the next flu pandemic. We seriously need to improve our pandemic response systems in order to save lives.