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

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

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

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

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

“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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