What do you eat for breakfast this morning? Maybe you’re up early this morning already, and perhaps you are preparing your family for the coming flu season. More likely, like others, you are navigating the flu’s inevitable path, cutting short family time, cramming a super productive day into a few hours.
But as flu epidemics become an increasing regularity in the U.S., what if it’s something else we have to contend with instead? What if we are now faced with a very real pandemic? What will we do? How will we cope?
Far more people would die if it was a pandemic virus. But what makes it so likely?
Earlier this week, Chinese authorities declared a public health emergency after a strain of avian flu virus infected 80 people and killed 36. The H7N9 strain has never spread very far in China, but the Asian country is susceptible to spread across borders. And with the 2009 H1N1 strain of flu wreaking havoc on humans, there is no shortage of space to contain any virus that infects humans, but the very last thing we need to do is rush to embrace a terrifying virus.
The consequences of us misjudging an outbreak are catastrophic. If the pandemic were a virus you were familiar with, as opposed to one that you had not heard of in the past, you would already be in serious trouble.
Viruses, as we learned from the Ebola scare in West Africa earlier this year, behave in unpredictable ways. Ebola, which is a virus of the filovirus, can evolve in surprising ways, and when it does, it can evolve quickly. That can cause large-scale spread at an epidemic’s peak.
This is not to say we need to be cowed into submission by a virus outbreak. We just need to get ready and do what we do when the World Health Organization issues a pandemic warning, which has occurred just four times, once in Africa and three times in Asia.
Vaccines, disease prevention and early infection treatment are all recommended by the WHO in order to stave off major outbreaks. The main methods of fighting the spread of a flu or a pandemic virus are to make sure we know about it before it becomes a threat, and that we vaccinate ourselves against it.
Since 1991, when the worldwide community has been proactive in disclosing the flu virus and publicizing its changeable characteristics, the health care system has kept itself more effectively prepared to fight flu and other health emergencies. But those efforts have not been enough to prepare us for something stranger and more potentially deadly.
Another crisis that has been creeping closer to home has recently been caused by another virus, smallpox. Just a few months ago, the WHO declared that smallpox was “no longer a threat to human health.” But within weeks of that announcement, the US experienced its first case of smallpox since 1980, and was called upon to provide government support in killing the virus at its source in New Jersey.