Influenza / Flu
The boom hit the U.S. in the fall of 1957, when the opening of school helped fuel an Asian Flu pandemic that eventually claimed 70,000 American lives - and 1.5 million more around the world.
And scientists say it could happen again. A pandemic virus or "novel virus" is one the human population has not been exposed to, said W. Paul Glezen, a professor of microbiology and epidemiologist for the Influenza Research center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Of 15 different avian influenza strains, Glezen said, only three have circulated in human populations.
"There are 12 more viruses that are possible," he said. "If one of those new strains came in, then essentially everybody on the planet has been susceptible."
Experts say gauging when a flu pandemic will hit is like predicting an earthquake along a major fault line. Three occurred in the past century: the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed between 30 and 40 million people; the 1957 Asian flu; and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968, which killed 36,000 people worldwide.
"The occurrence is chaotic," Glezen said. "There's no way you can predict when it's going to happen. All you can do is be prepared for this eventuality."
There was a close call in 1997, when an avian flu jumped from poultry to people living in Hong Kong. Eighteen people were sickened and six died before more than 1.3 million chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons were killed to stop the spread of the virus. The virus also must be able to spread from person to person for a pandemic to develop, which did not occur in the Hong Kong case.
The United States has been preparing for an influenza pandemic since the late 1970s. Officials meet every four years with international representatives for updates and to coordinate global surveillance.
Experts say much progress has been made both in pandemic preparedness and the advancement of anti-viral drugs, though our larger, more mobile population could help the virus spread.
In an average flu season there are more than 20,000 influenza deaths, according to Nancy Cox, chief of the influenza branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a pandemic, the United States could expect between two and five times as many.
"The right influenza virus could spread fairly rapidly around the globe and could cause substantial morbidity and mortality," she said.
The key to stopping a pandemic is identifying the strain and creating a vaccine, Cox said. But executing the rapid response requires coordination among various agencies and the federal government similar to what's needed during a natural disaster or other regional event.
"The single most important part of pandemic preparedness is state and local planning," said Martin Myers, head of the National Vaccine Program Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "The likelihood is early in a pandemic we won't have sufficient vaccine. It's most important for communities to anticipate what's going to happen so they're able to cope with it."
While vaccinating those over 65 and others who are frail is most important, he said, a main focus should be determining which services are critical and vaccinating high-risk people, such as health care workers, police officers and firefighters. In one city, subway operators may be essential, while in another, those who control the nuclear power plant are a priority.
Raymond Strikas of the National Immunization Program at the CDC said several states and counties received funding in 1997 from a consortium of federal agencies to create pandemic plans, including Connecticut, Missouri, Maine, New Mexico, New York and Mercer Township, N.J.
Plans have been revised and nine more states were funded through 2000, though others are working independently.
Influenza preparedness is linked to the CDC's Healthy People 2010 program, whose goal is vaccine levels of 90 percent for those 65 and older. Currently, the figure is at 67 percent, while those younger than 65 get vaccinated at a rate of 60 percent. Increased use means manufacturers are more likely to produce more of the vaccine.
"If more is being used, we'll be in a better position to make more vaccine more quickly by virtue of the fact that there's better uptake," Strikas said. "The country is much better prepared. There's more vaccine being used now than at any other time."
Cox stressed that people should not panic and that this year's delay in vaccine availability is completely unrelated to a pandemic. But, she added, being prepared is paramount.
"What a lot of people say is that a pandemic is very likely," she said. "We know that we've had three during the past century, and there's little reason to think that we won't have another pandemic. But we absolutely cannot predict when it will occur."
Excerpt from FOX News
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Latest Article: Influenza / Flu
The boom hit the U.S. in the fall of 1957, when the opening of school helped fuel an Asian Flu pandemic that eventually claimed 70,000 American lives - and 1.5 million more around the world. And scientists say it could happen again. A pandemic virus or "novel virus" is one the human population has not...