Flu Is in the Air

Is an influenza pandemic that may kill hundreds of millions of people in the offing? Dr. Melinda Moore, public health physician and Rand Corporation Natural Scientist, says yes. Dr. Moore, who gave a presentation on the "Pandemic Influenza" on Thursday, Oct. 2, discussed her work on global health issues and preparation.

She is currently employed for the Rand Corporation where she recently participated in two regional exercises meant to improve the response capabilities of the governments involved. One was conducted in Southeast Asia, an area likely to be a place of outbreak, and another in the Middle East. The presentation, given in a half-attended room in the Art Complex, sought to enlighten students of the prospect of an influenza pandemic and what they should know, as well as encouraging students to pursue careers in public health.

The influenza, commonly known as the flu, occurs in seasonal outbreaks. The influenza pandemic, on the other hand, occurs when a new strain of the influenza virus is transmitted to humans from another animal species, spreading around the world infecting large portions of the human population and causing high fatality rates. There were three such pandemics in the 20th century: the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, the worst of the century, killing from 40-100 million people worldwide, the Asian flu of 1957-1958, and the 1968-1969 Hong Kong Flu.

According to Dr. Moore, the "world is overdue for another influenza pandemic." The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a Pandemic Alert System, with different phases to assist in identifying threats and appropriate preparation. We are currently in Phase 3, the first stage in the "Pandemic Alert Period" where humans are infected with a new subtype, the virus is self-limiting, and there is an absence of human-to-human spread.

There are many problems confronting the people of the world in dealing effectively with a potential outbreak. As Dr. Moore reiterated time and again, preparation will be a key factor in containing and limiting the deadly spread of the virus.

Regional exercises in South East Asia and the Middle East demonstrated the need for greater cooperation and work, although the exercises were successful in bringing about such cooperation and laying the groundwork for future work.

A major source of concern is the availability of vaccinations. Since the influenza pandemic will be the result of a mutation of an existing influenza strain, a vaccine will likely not be developed in the initial stages of outbreak. Further, there are a limited number of countries actually producing influenza vaccines; therefore, the specter of significant regional differences in impact and fatality is a definite concern.

Zackery Yim, a SMC student at the presentation, raised the issue that the production of anti-viral drugs is lacking. Specifically, drugs such as Tamiflu are in short supply and their immediate production capabilities are limited.

There are several recommendations for individuals responding to a pandemic outbreak. Dr. Moore stressed "good hand-washing" and "respiratory etiquette," as well as traveling less.

The worst-case scenario involves high infectivity and lethality, rapid global spread, and inadequate control measures. These are among the major issues the outbreak of an influenza pandemic will bring forth. Amid other measures, including increased production of anti-viral drugs, the rise of experts in public health will be necessary to deal with the coming outbreak of an influenza pandemic.