On average 36,000 people die of influenza every year and more than 200,000 are hospitalized in the USA. Each year, depending on how contagious it is that year, between 5% and 20% of the US population gets the flu. We maintain limited immunity from one year to the next but since influenza mutates so rapidly that immunity is limited and rarely lasts more than a year. The best way to prevent getting the flu is to be immunized against it, however since the vaccine generally has limited availability, people most at risk--children under 2 and adults over 65--are given priority.

What I described above is what happens in an average year and it's based on information from the CDC. But there's occasionally years that are anything but average. In the past 200 years there have been a number of pandemics of influenza. They have occured in 1833, 1836, 1847, 1889, 1918, 1957 and 1968. The infamous pandemic of 1918 killed approximately 50 million people, more than died in WW1 which was occuring at the same time.

It's been nearly 40 years since the last pandemic and by that standard we're overdue for the next one. It might not happen for decades but then again it could be this year. Despite all the marvels of modern medicine we're not much more prepared now than we were in 1918. But now there are a lot more people and with global travel so widespread influenza transmission would be impossible to control.

The moral of the story is that the world needs to increase the amount of money spent on pandemic research, particularly regarding influenza. We also need to support the vaccine effort better which would lead to more widespread availability of the vaccines. These are both things that take time so we just have to hope that our time hasn't run out. Should a flu as deadly as the one in 1918 break out now the death toll would probably top 300 million people world wide. That's more than the entire population of the USA!


CDC Influenza Website

World Not Set To Deal With Flu


Utopia said…
Facts with passion! It's all about the money.
utenzi said…
Does that mean you'll pay me for something passionate???? I work for a University--so it's been well established that I come cheap. Ummm. Maybe I should rephrase.
utenzi said…
Mike did two posts about influenza this past Sunday and Monday that go into more detail. That's what got me interested in the subject.
queenofsass said…
This was a bit heavy without coffee this morning. I am a good girl & get my flu shot every year.
Lora said…
Just a comletely naive question here, but since we do have a lot more global travel and expourse to various viruses could that actaully improve our natural resistance to such things?

BTW I'm a good girl and get my flu shot every year if they'll let me have it.
utenzi said…
Hi Chris and Lora. I must be a bad boy in contrast to you two good girls. I've never had a flu shot. Ever.

It's a very good idea to have flu shots both for personal reasons (to keep from getting the flu) and also since companies have difficulty ramping up flu vaccine production so the more people that get a shot each year the better able the pharmaceutical companies would be to provide vaccine in the case of a pandemic.

Right now most vaccine production is done by innoculating chicken eggs which is time consuming and expensive and not easily ramped upwards in production. Perhaps further research will find better methods--and maybe not.
utenzi said…
Oops. I neglected to answer Lora's question. Unfortunately resistance is gained by exposure to a pathogen and each time a strain of influenza mutates it appears sufficiently different to our immune system as to be treated as a new invader. Our immune system is very specific and exposure to other pathogens doesn't help us fight off new ones, Lora.

The lifecycle of migratory ducks fuels this system since ducks in Russia and China migrate to and from lakes in Siberia. This is part of the reason why the occurance of flu is cyclical. During the summer in Siberia the ducks gain new viruses and bring them back home in winter.
Anonymous said…
endless number of these wonderful finds, what with the Internet being a vast network of constantly evolving ideas and all!

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