The strain of the flu that has circulated the US this year has been a really bad one. Highly contagious and occasionally deadly, the 2018 flu has spread like wildfire throughout schools and workplaces, knocking out victims for a week at a time and leaving them fatigued, fevery, dehydrated, and compromised against other infections.
Many epidemiologists and virologists are comparing this year’s outbreak against the deadly influenza epidemic of 100 years ago that sparked the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which lasted into 1919. Known colloquially as the Spanish Flu, the epidemic left widespread panic and little hope. Present estimates put the origin of the sickness in Kansas, and records indicate that about a third of the global population contracted it. In total, about 50 million people died worldwide as a result of the flu, including 675,000 US citizens.
Naturally, with the severity of this year’s flu virus, many are left wondering if we’re doomed for another global influenza pandemic. Already in the US, doctors and nurses are resorting to serious measure to keep people safe. Some have set up flu treatments clinics in parking lots to handle the influx of patients. In addition, Tropicana and Simply Orange have reported a spike in orange juice sales as a result of buyers trying to preemptively ward off the flu.
We already have a number of advantages over our ancestors who fell prey to the Spanish Flu. Today, we have a much better understanding of virology and epidemiology, so we can anticipate the strain, spread, and symptoms of it. In a similar vein, we have much better practices for keeping sick people quarantined so as not to spread the virus. Doctors and nurses take much steeper precautions when interacting with flu patients so that the virus doesn’t travel from patient to patient.
Most importantly, we have vaccines to immunize individuals against the spread of the flu. Our work on vaccines at present is a tough job that involves a lot of educated guessing. Each year, the strain of the flu that catches on is slightly different from the one that preceded it, and anticipating the strain for the upcoming year can be hit or miss. This year, the vaccine that was developed has only put a small dent in the people who were kept from catching the virus, but a new vaccine designed specifically to target the strain causing so much trouble.
The hope and dream of scientists is to eventually develop a universal flu vaccine that will be able to handle any evolution of the virus. At present, scientists are hurrying to develop drugs that will treat this particularly bad bout of the flu. Some work on blocking proteins, and others target the genes in the virus itself. However, the global cost of the flu is in the multi millions, from the lost labor to the hospital costs incurred by the sick populous. Scientists are trying desperately to develop a better system than the guess-and-test method that leaves them a step behind in moments like this, but in the meantime, nations are stockpiling tamiflu and vaccines to keep their people healthy.
The next global flu pandemic is likely around the corner, as some scientists have already posited. What will set apart the next one from the last one will be our ability to communicate at lightning speed with other hospitals around the world and our ability to use antibiotics. A 2008 study revealed that the cause of death for the vast majority of flu patients was actually a respiratory virus that they were too weak to fight. Today’s medicine would likely help stave off other infections that are more deadly than the flu if caught soon enough.
Globally, initiatives to provide soap and other cleanliness measures will be invaluable tools in preventing the spread of this flu from the US and Hong Kong to other nations, and communication among all nations is key to keeping this contained.