Jan 02 2017

Are We Ready for a Flu Pandemic?

1918-fluIn 1918-1919 the world suffered its worst flu pandemic, with 20-40 million people dying (the CDC claims as many as 50 million). The pandemic resulted from the sudden emergence of a particularly virulent flu strain. In 2008 scientists reconstructed the exact strain, which was influenza A (H1N1).

The virus spread rapidly throughout the world, mostly through trade routes, but the mass movement of people resulting from World War I was thought to be a key factor as well.

Recently Bill Gates stated that he does not feel the world is ready if a similar flu pandemic struck. His foundation is concerned with global health, so he pays attention to such issues. He cited the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks as evidence that our current preparedness is inadequate.

What are the chances of another pandemic similar to 1918-19? New strains of virulent viruses emerge all the time. It seems inevitable that a particularly bad one will appear at some point, but this is impossible to predict. The CDC states that it is unlikely the next bad flu pandemic will be H1N1 because since the 1918 flu strains of H1N1 have been circulating, and therefore there is decent immunity in the population. H1N1 is also included in the annual flu vaccine. (By the way, if you did not get your vaccine yet, it’s not too late. Do it now.)

But there are many strains of flu. Bird flu is an influenza A virus that mostly infects birds, but has started to cross over to human infections. There are also other viruses, like the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus.

If a virus as virulent as the 1918 flu virus struck, would it be better or worse in modern times? That’s a good question. On the positive side, we have better medical care now, and we have organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC who can respond to try to limit the pandemic. On the down side, air travel allows for much more rapid spread of infections around the world.

The best method for limiting and halting an outbreak (local occurrence of a new infection or rapid spread beyond what is typical), epidemic (spread of an outbreak to numerous communities), or pandemic (a world-wide epidemic) is vaccination. Having the vaccine ready ahead of time is optimal.

Recently scientists announced that they have made significant progress in developing an ebola vaccine. This could prove critical in stamping out the next outbreak.

If we don’t have a vaccine ready, however, it could take six months or more to develop one. Even if a new strain of flu emerged, and we know how to make flu vaccines, targeting the specific strain would take six months. Figuring out a way to shorten this delay would be hugely effective. This is also why researchers continue to look for ways to make a universal flu vaccine. Although progress is frequently reported, no effective universal flu vaccine has emerged.

The CDC does have plans in place to respond to a pandemic at the global, federal, and local levels. We may one day find out how effective those plans are. The CDC also has information for individuals.They include methods of limiting spread:

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
  • If you are sick with flu symptoms, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

These are good rules to follow for any infectious illness. The next pandemic will start with a local outbreak that may not seem unusual at first, or may just appear like a particularly bad flu. How the people in the area of the local outbreak react can determine if the outbreak becomes an epidemic or pandemic.

If a deadly epidemic or pandemic does occur, then emergency preparedness will be key. You should have an emergency kit ready to go. The CDC recommends that you always have a 3 day supply of food and water in the house. I personally think this is a little light. Only a few years ago my family was literally snow bound for 4 days. We have had power outages in CT lasting 5-7 days for some homes.

A few days of supplies is good enough for the kind of emergency that happens once every few years to a decade. But what about the kind of emergency that happens once a century? If you think about it, you are likely to encounter one such emergency in your lifetime. A serious disease epidemic could result in the recommendation that people stay in their homes for weeks.

There are other kinds of uncommon but almost inevitable emergencies, such as rare floods, earthquakes, and severe hurricanes or other weather. A coronal mass ejection (CME) could wipe out our electrical grid, and takes years to recover. It is plausible that it could take weeks to re-establish basic supplies. And of course there is always the risk of terrorism.

If everyone had several weeks of food, instead of several days, in their homes, this would be a great help in reducing the burden on disaster relief. This is not hard to do, and does not require any specialty items. Dry goods, like rice, beans, legumes, dry milk, and pasta, will last a very long time and can be part of your normal food rotation. Canned goods (with a manual can opener) also last a long time.

Being prepared is one of those things you should do but then hope you never need. Take the time to think about how prepared you are, and what you would do in an emergency. If you were watching the news right now, and they were saying that there is a major flu outbreak of a deadly strain in your area, and you should stay home if at all possible – are you prepared?

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