Increase Flu Research Funds


January 11, 2018

The flu season is now upon us and this year epidemiologists are classifying the outbreak as “moderately severe” at this point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the last week of December the number of states reporting widespread flu activity increased from 36 to 46, with 26 states experiencing a “high activity” of flu. As of this past Tuesday, in California, 27 people under the age of 65 have died from the flu.

One reason for the increase in cases and mortalities is that this year’s vaccine is a poor match for this year’s actual virus, the H3N2 virus or “Aussie flu.” Due to the mismatch, the vaccine is estimated to be just 30 percent effective. (However, it’s still recommended that people get a flu shot because even if shot recipients catch the flu, the shots will mitigate the flu’s effects and lessen the chances of complications, such as pneumonia.)

The ease in which this particular virus is spreading is compounded by the fact that hospitals and pharmacies are running out of Tamiflu, an anti-viral medication used to treat the flu, in hard hit areas. The greater prevalence of flu, the more difficult it is to find the anti-viral medication.

The CDC estimates that about 12,000 Americans die from the flu in “mild” years and 56,000 Americans die in “moderately severe” ones like this year. Globally, about 650,000 die from the flu during “severe” outbreak and 300,000 die during a “mild” outbreak. But the situation has been, and could be, much worse. Conservative estimates are that the 1918-19 Spanish flu killed 50 million people worldwide. That virus was so deadly that some people who experienced their first symptoms in the morning were dead by nightfall.

For epidemiologists, it is not a question of if, but when, such a lethal virus could return. Despite improvements in health worldwide, two factors could facilitate the spread of such a virus: an increasing worldwide population with greater contact with pigs and poultry, the carriers of such viruses, and the ease of intercontinental travel. Many fear that the U.S. is not prepared for such a pandemic for several reasons.

One reason is that many American hospitals and pharmacies only stock a few days supply of the relevant medications. Many of these medications are produced overseas, so it is difficult to increase their production while decreasing the delivery time. This shortage is not just limited to medications. Some U.S. hospitals are facing a shortage of IV bags, many of which are produced in Puerto Rico. That supply has been severely disrupted by the effects of Hurricane Maria.

Another reason for a possible pandemic is that the vaccine process is based on a 70-year-old technology of having the virus incubate in eggs. It takes several months for the vaccine to develop within the egg. That requires epidemiologists to estimate several months in advance what they believe the prevalent strain will be. Many times they guess correctly, but sometimes they do not. And then there is the possibility of mutations of the virus, both with the “seed virus” that is implanted in eggs or the virus in its natural state. Thus, we have situations where the flu shot is only 30 percent effective.

As a result, many medical researchers and epidemiologists have called for the creation of a universal vaccine that would inoculate patients against all types of A strain influenzas. But that would take money for research, and that money has not been forthcoming. The National Institutes of Health receives only $32 million annually for such research. By comparison, research funding for an HIV vaccine is approximately $1 billion annually.

Far too often we tend to focus on the dramatic and visual instead of the mundane but widespread. We seem far more concerned about terror attacks and mass shootings than car accidents or influenza. But the simple fact is that exponentially more Americans will die from the flu this year than have died in terror attacks. We need to increase research funding for influenza so that we can create an efficient universal vaccine that will protect us not only from these “moderately severe” outbreaks that seem to occur every few years but also from any pandemic, which will certainly occur; it’s just a matter of time.


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