Flu epi­demic is com­ing, and we’re not ready

The bug is spread­ing; no state is im­mune. Could 1918 his­tory re­peat it­self?

Star Tribune - - OPINION EXCHANGE - By ANN McFEATTERS Tri­bune News Ser­vice (TNS)

It starts with body aches, chills, ex­haus­tion, headache and fever. Then come con­ges­tion, sore throat and cough. It is mis­er­able. It is the flu. In Ohio, where I picked up the bug that laid me low, de­spite a flu vac­cine shot, the hos­pi­tals are full. But flu is spread­ing across the coun­try like a shadow. No state is im­mune.

I had just read sev­eral ex­cel­lent books about the great flu pan­demic of 1918, which started a cen­tury ago this month. It is a chill­ing med­i­cal mys­tery, with in­cred­i­ble death and suf­fer­ing. More than 500 mil­lion peo­ple were in­fected world­wide. Many re­cov­ered only to die young of com­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing my grand­fa­ther whom I never knew.

Some Amer­i­can sol­diers sent abroad to fight the Great War car­ried the virus with them. It spread through­out Europe, and healthy sol­diers picked it up and came back rav­ished with ill­ness, and the flu spread across the coun­try and back again.

Peo­ple got up healthy in the morn­ing and were dead by night­fall. Those most vul­ner­a­ble were be­tween the ages of 20 and 40.

There isn’t even a good es­ti­mate of how many died. It is be­lieved to be at least 20 mil­lion and An em­ployee of the Hen­nepin County Med­i­cal Cen­ter re­ceived a flu shot in Oc­to­ber.

Re­search bud­gets have been slashed, and more cuts are com­ing. Many are wor­ried.

per­haps 50 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide, the most dev­as­tat­ing epi­demic in recorded his­tory — worse than the Bubonic Plague out­break from 1347 to 1351 and more than all of the deaths in World War I.

In the United States, one of ev­ery four peo­ple got sick.

With all of our med­i­cal knowl­edge, our vac­cines and public in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns, and our gleam­ing hos­pi­tals, that could not hap­pen again, I thought.

I was wrong.

My sis­ter has been in­volved with dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness drills in Ohio in the event of an­other flu epi­demic; she tells me the state is not pre­pared. Ap­par­ently, this is true for ev­ery state.

I am writ­ing about this be­cause when I was a re­porter, I cov­ered many hear­ings in Wash­ing­ton about the pol­i­tics of vac­cines. It was in­fu­ri­at­ing that peo­ple were sick and died be­cause of pol­i­tics. It was in­fu­ri­at­ing how of­ten it hap­pened.

And it’s hap­pen­ing again. We are not re­motely ready for the in­fluenza pan­demic that, sci­en­tists in­sist, even­tu­ally will hap­pen.

Only 40 per­cent of Amer­i­cans get the flu vac­cine ev­ery year. And while re­ports are that this year’s batch may be only about 10 per­cent ef­fec­tive, that is bet­ter than noth­ing. Get­ting the vac­cine is likely to re­duce the sever­ity of your symp­toms if you con­tract in­fluenza.

Many peo­ple al­ler­gic to eggs can’t tol­er­ate the vac­cine, al­though egg-free vac­cines are be­com­ing avail­able. Each year’s vac­cines are a guess on which strains of flu will strike.

In to­day’s world, peo­ple don’t al­ways stay home when they get sick. They feel guilty if they don’t tough it out and re­port for duty. They get on planes and spread the virus from one state to an­other, one coun­try to an­other. They don’t cough into their el­bows but send a shower of deadly droplets all around them.

Worse, hos­pi­tals do not have enough drugs on hand to han­dle an all-out epi­demic, and get­ting more would be dif­fi­cult if not im­pos­si­ble on short no­tice.

Wash­ing­ton, at the mo­ment, is not par­tic­u­larly interested in sci­ence. Re­search bud­gets have been slashed, and more cuts are com­ing. The gov­ern­ment spent only $75 mil­lion last year on flu vac­cine re­search. The White House is not interested in de­vel­op­ing a univer­sal vac­cine, the best solution if an an­i­mal flu virus in­fects hu­mans and then goes viral.

Many are wor­ried. Michael Oster­holm, pro­fes­sor and director of the Cen­ter for In­fec­tious Dis­ease Re­search and Pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, and Mark Ol­shaker, a doc­u­men­tary film­maker who with Oster­holm wrote “Dead­li­est En­emy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” re­cently sounded a full-throated alarm in the New York Times.

“We are not pre­pared,” they said. “Our cur­rent vac­cines are based on 1940s re­search. De­ploy­ing them against a se­vere global pan­demic would be equiv­a­lent to try­ing to stop an ad­vanc­ing bat­tle tank with a sin­gle ri­fle.”

They, too, in­sist a pan­demic is not a ques­tion of “if ” but “when.” They ar­gue for a small­pox vac­cine-like ef­fort, a “Man­hat­tan Project-scale ef­fort.”

That’s not likely with a tax cut adding $1.5 tril­lion to the national debt, mean­ing, by law, less med­i­cal re­search.

Stay healthy, my friends. Get plenty of rest, stay hy­drated and keep your fin­gers crossed.

GLEN STUBBE • Star Tri­bune

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