One thing becoming more apparent in this worrisome flu season is the need for a universal flu vaccine.
The world must develop a better flu vaccine that gives broader protection against changing strains, a vaccine that you get only once or twice in your lifetime. Medicines for many other diseases have those capabilities because governments have committed the time and money needed to eradicate, or effectively control them.
The flu is considered more of a seasonal nuisance that kills mainly those near the end of life or those weakened by other health problems. So it doesn’t rate high on government research spending priorities.
It should because the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that influenza seriously sickens three to five million people worldwide every year. World deaths are estimated at 290,000 to 650,000 annually.
U.S. spending on research for an effective flu vaccine is far less than spending for a vaccine for HIV, which experts say is a very long way off. In Canada, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent providing flu shots and advertising and promotion aimed at increasing awareness. Not enough is spent on finding a new and effective vaccine.
Current flu vaccines are based on 1940s research and in terms of effectiveness have not advanced much since then. Most years the flu vaccine is 40 to 60 per cent effective; this year the effectiveness is only 10 to 30 per cent.
This winter’s flu epidemic tells us why we need to take flu more seriously and commit more money and effort to find a universal vaccine. Hospitalizations this winter in the U.S. are double those of last year and Canadian confirmed cases have surpassed 20,000 with 82 reported deaths.
The main villain this winter is H3N2, a very nasty virus responsible for the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu pandemic that killed one million people around the globe.
More disturbing is the fact that this year H3N2 is killing children and young adults. By the end of last week 30 children in the U.S. had died and the numbers were mounting daily. There have been several news reports of young, healthy and physically fit adults getting the flu and dying quickly.
That was the trademark of the most devastating flu outbreak in modern times – the 1918 pandemic. It killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide, many young, healthy individuals.
Some people believe that a pandemic as serious as 1918 cannot happen again. We have flu vaccine now, even if it is not perfect, other spectacular medical advances and much better health care systems. However, the world has four times more people than in 1918, millions of them travelling between continents every day.
Flu can spread with lightning speed through today’s world and vaccine manufacturing and distribution are too slow to outrun an 1918-style pandemic.
As Michael Osterholm, a globally respected infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, wrote in the New York Times earlier this month:
“Deploying them (current vaccines) against a severe global pandemic would be equivalent to trying to stop an advancing battle tank with a single rifle.”
Osterholm and other medical professors have said there will be global pandemics. The only unknown is how serious they will be.
A catastrophic flu outbreak could develop from a Chinese poultry flu virus named H7N9. It has been restricted mainly to birds but has been mutating to allow transmission to and between humans.
As of last month the United Nations reported 1,623 cases of H7N9 in humans. Of those infected, 620 died. That latter number is very scary. More than 38 per cent of people infected by that flu virus died.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says H7N9 is the influenza virus most likely to cause a pandemic.
So far most human cases of the H7N9 have involved persons who have touched live or dead poultry, poultry feces or contaminated food.
Flu viruses are mutating constantly and if this one changes enough to allow easy human-to-human transmission the world could be in serious trouble.
That’s why governments need to spend more to accelerate the quest for a universal vaccine.