Flu: The Imminent Pandemic
Influenza is an everyday disease that affects thousands worldwide. Despite its reputation as a mundane sickness, the flu (especially the avian flu) is widely touted by experts as the propagator of the next deadly pandemic. The secret to this virus’ lethality is its antigenic shifting, leading to increased virulence and transmission factors. If one strain of a super flu begins circulating, millions of lives and billions of dollars will be lost. Only by preparing a national and worldwide response to this threat will we be able to combat this imminent pandemic.
Deadlier than the Black Death, more lethal than nuclear warfare -- this is the modus operandi of the pathogenic virus alphainfluenzavirus Orthomyxoviridae, more commonly known as the human flu. This is no simple cold virus; the historical records of this disease reveal that the three major flu pandemics in the 20th century, most notably the 1918 Spanish Flu, wiped out an estimated 20-50 million people (CDC). Furthermore, it is almost certain that the next pandemic will be caused by a strain of influenza called H5N1, A.K.A. the notorious avian flu (CDC). Experts warn that question of this pandemic is not “if”, but “when”. So what does the future hold for us?
Here are some basic facts about this seemingly mundane disease: 5%-20% of the US population gets the flu annually, with the young and the old at the biggest risk; symptoms include fever, aches, stomach symptoms, and sometimes complications like pneumonia, ear/sinus infections, and dehydration (CDC 2). Once a healthy adult is infected, flu viruses can infect others one day before symptoms are revealed and up to five days after the victim is outwardly sick (CDC 2-3). Large communities where people are in close contact are especially susceptible. Flu season occurs in January or later, so getting a vaccination before wintertime wards off most problems (CDC 8).
Yet the flu is still a threat to humans, even in countries with access to excellent medical care. Why? Although yearly vaccines prevent many people from succumbing the disease, the flu virus can go through what is called an antigenic shift – one strain of the flu can jump between two different species, go through an intermediate host to another species, or genetically mix when two strains meet in the same cell (CNN 2). To give one example, let’s say a common human strain (H3N2) finds a human cell and uses its hemagglutinin proteins to infiltrate it. Another strain that infects birds, such as H5N1, enters the same cell. These two sets of genetic material mix to yield a new strain, which may inherit the transmission and severity factors from both parent strains to produce a new virulent virus in humans (CNN 3). This is how zoonotic strains of pathogens enter the human pool of diseases. If we see this happen with a strain of avian flu, the consequences will be overwhelming.
The impact of seasonal influenza is already severely underestimated, killing...