As the peak of flu season has passed, it has become clear that this year’s flu was equal in severity to the notorious 2009 H1N1 outbreak. The particular H3N2 strain that was responsible for the majority of flu-related deaths is not a novel virus, but it acts quickly and with more severity than the strains of previous years, in a manner that has caused the greatest volume of hospitalizations in the CDC’s recent recorded history. So extreme has been the disruption in the global economic and health care circuit that both governmental and private sector authorities are looking into ways to lessen the yearly effects of the flu epidemic. On the 100 year anniversary of the devastating 1918 Spanish flu, experts are calling into question the very infrastructure of our current healthcare system and its ability to handle severe flu epidemics.
On a grassroots level, hospitalizations and doctor visits associated with a flu infection generate staggering costs of over ten billion dollars. Broader economic effects include an estimated $9.42 billion lost by employers due to employee sick days. Overall, it is estimated that the U.S. economy loses over $80 billion in an average flu season. While some companies require their employees to obtain a flu shot, with an efficacy rate of only 25%, the vaccine is not a guaranteed safeguard. Because of the costs of flu epidemics in terms of lost productivity, many U.S. corporations have a vested interest in government-scale efforts to minimize the effects of flu epidemics. Such efforts include those of the government and the CDC to directly reach out to American citizens through weekly statements that encourage precautions such as obtaining the flu shot — efforts that have been recently increased.
Dr. Jonathan Quick, a global health expert, warns that the United States is unprepared to face a pandemic as severe as the 1918 pandemic. He points out that one of the biggest challenges that the CDC faces is the guesswork that comes with manufacturing a new vaccine yearly and recommends that the government funnel more money into the development of a universal flu vaccine. He also notes, however, that the U.S. must also continue to “invest in making sure we have the best public health information in communities.” The CDC educational initiatives, Quick says, can be even more effective than vaccines: “The fact is that good, basic, public health… [is] more effective this year than the vaccine, as it turns out.”
Similarly, in an opinion piece from StatNews, Lance Gable calls for a new focus on and approach to treating and preventing the flu, on a bureaucratic scale. He says that the government needs to invest more in vaccine development, considering that the techniques currently being used are slow and out-of-date. Similarly, he points out that the notification network run by the World Health Organization is also antiquated and negligent of the small rural outbreaks that might lead to a global pandemic. Finally, he calls for a more systematic education system for the American population and preparedness of hospitals. Essentially, Mr. Gable is calling for the government to invest more money in epidemic prevention.
Henry Miller of Newsweek expresses a comparable opinion in an editorial, specifically calling for funding to develop a “universal” vaccine — one that can adapt to protect against the multiple strains of the flu. Miller argues that while billions of dollars are being spent on the development of vaccines against Ebola, the flu receives only a small fraction of such funding and yet is arguably just as formidable. Miller takes issue with the lack of funds allocated for the improvement of vaccine development as a whole, stating, “Regulators should require manufacturers to phase out flu vaccines produced with inferior, 70 year-old technology.”
The responsibility for pandemic control lies in the power of the government, because it possesses regulatory duties over all drug manufacturers and controls the funding that is allocated for disease research. The government and the CDC also facilitate the educational programs that foster proper hand-washing and symptom recognition, which may be very effective at decreasing the incidence of flu. If such measures are not prioritized in the annual budget, an epidemic on the catastrophic level of the 1918 flu will remain all too real a possibility.
- Donnelly, Grace. Here’s How Much the Flu Could Cost Businesses This Year. Fortune. 2 February 2018. http://fortune.com/2018/02/02/flu-season-cost/
- Gable, Lance. 3 ways the U.S. should prepare for the next flu pandemic. Stat. 14 February 2018. https://www.statnews.com/2018/02/14/prepare-next-flu-pandemic/
- Layne, Rachel. As flu season gets worse, the costs are climbing. CBS. 24 January 2018.
- McNeill, Donald. The Flu Outbreak Has Peaked but Still Has Weeks to Go. The New York Times. 18 January 2018.
- Miller, Henry. How We Can Prevent the Next Killer Flu Epidemic. Newsweek. 13 February 2018.
- Wernick, Adam. The world remains unprepared to handle a major epidemic, a new book warns. PRI. 10 March 2018. https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-03-10/world-remains-unprepared-handle-major-epidemic-new-book-warns