The world has warned of possible pandemics for decades. The last was the H1N1 flu in 2009, which killed more than 15,000 people worldwide. Eight years on, only modest improvements have been made in the global spread of flu, and with “fast global diffusion of pathogens” across borders, the risks of pandemics are “increasing,” according to the World Health Organization.
One of the most effective strategies to combat a pandemic is vaccination. In addition to annual influenza vaccination in school-aged children, flu vaccinations are recommended to pregnant women and their infants. And since a pandemic threat cannot be eliminated, we should also consider stocks of antiviral drugs that protect against multiple strains of flu. One of the most promising ways to do this is a vaccine-for-disease spread. The concept behind this approach is simple: If disease spreads from infection to infection, protective vaccines would be created to fight multiple strains simultaneously.
But the challenge is to overcome the issue of virus sharing and to mitigate the threat of seasonal influenza outbreaks. Adopting this approach toward the flu virus is technically complex, and research has yet to produce a vaccine capable of protecting people from every type of influenza. Then there is the financial challenge of finding a more effective way to manufacture a vaccine in this digital age.
Perhaps most daunting is that neither of these problems are likely to be solved on a global scale. Each has implications for the individual, the government, and for the economic and environmental health of the world. An individual virus might be safe enough for people to knowingly spread it. So, how should we prevent people from getting infected? In France, officials are raising concerns about the health impacts of the H5N1 avian influenza virus: it has caused 18 human bird flu cases with 13 deaths. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that nurses, food inspectors, veterinarians, and anyone who might otherwise come into contact with ill or dead poultry should remain on high alert for symptoms of avian flu.
The biggest concern is that with any pandemic, millions will die in a matter of days. It is a human tragedy with political ramifications. If a pandemic is not prevented in time, people will not only lose their lives but also their property. There is an economic dimension to the threat of a pandemic as well. Each dollar invested in tackling a pandemic may save as much as $1.3 in lost output. The world may simply not have the economic ability to address this disaster, and to count those lives it did save is an impossibility.
But all of these problems are also solvable. Researchers are beginning to identify effective ways to prevent and treat bird flu infections. Vaccines are becoming a small but growing part of the global effort to combat the virus. And it is possible that we can find a way to protect against numerous influenza strains. Health organizations such as WHO and CDC are in the process of promoting vaccination against the flu — while using existing vaccines. We must keep studying ways to prevent infections and find a way to stop infections from spreading.
Is vaccination the right tool to solve an elusive problem? When vaccines are produced in cell lines in cell culture instead of inside eggs, a significant advance. But until we know more about the current virulence of the virus, it may not be effective. The virus is more clever than we are.
Read more at The New York Times.
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