In October 2017, the flu season had started off no different than in the previous year, but approaching the end of 2017, things turned drastic. By the beginning of 2018, the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Spanish influenza pandemic, the virus morphed into the worst case since the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. With the death toll reaching as high as four thousand people each week, according to the weekly flu reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the first three to four weeks of 2018, it begs the question: Are we going to see another 1918-esque pandemic in our lifetime and are we fully prepared to face it?
Last spring, during the six months when the CDC was in preparation of the vaccines via incubation of chicken eggs, the virus had already begun mutating. This explains the disappointing 36 percent rate of effectiveness for the current vaccine. It fares particularly bad against type A influenza, the same type that the notorious swine flu is filed under. In a surprising twist, the swine flu virus (H1N1) isn’t the main culprit this year but a different subtype, H3N2. Usually, that version of the flu is not as prevalent compared to the other; however, for unexplainable reasons, it managed to surpass the deadliness of H1N1. What makes this strain especially dangerous are the complications leading to death, and the fact that, because people are exposed to it less often, people lack an immunity against the strain.
Considering how this year’s vaccine is not that effective against the flu, it seems as if there’s no point in opting for the vaccine as you’re likely to get the flu anyway; however, the CDC, as well as other health organizations, insists that you should get the shot. But why? For one, there’s the concept of herd immunity, the theory that as long as there’s a large percentage of the population that is immune, the chances of contagious diseases being spread are low. Even when there are people who aren’t immune, whether because of an immunity disorder or inability to be vaccinated, they’ll be protected by the majority.
“Probably this year I gave 300 vaccines, I would imagine two-thirds of those are college students,” says Cathy Bochine, a CVS community pharmacist in Storrs. Bochine notes that, through the combined effort of CVS and the UCONN health service, “thousands of vaccines” were given out in the entire community, upwards of five thousand people.
But even with this encouraging number, there are still plenty of people who choose not to join the herd. “I’m not someone who gets a lot of vaccines unless it’s like a necessity or school purposes or like when I used to play sports; I always used to get vaccines for whatever reason for that kind of stuff,” explains CCSU junior Cristina. However, she insists on doing the most in terms of hygiene, trying to be a “clean freak.” Even if people do follow good hygiene, there’s still the risk of transmission, with people coming into campus or work while they’re still sick.
And too many of them have died. The CDC reported the rate of flu deaths this season as high as 9 percent of all deaths—higher than the epidemic threshold of about 7 percent. While the deaths of the elderly and young children happen annually from the virus, the strange part this year is how the virus has claimed the lives of healthy adults. Bochine speculates that those deaths may have been the result of an “allergic reaction to the flu.” Whatever the case may be, it has people scared. Cristina, with nervous laughter, points out how “crazy” the situation has been. “I know that I’m going to be an educator, so for me, seeing how it’s been affecting children is scary,” she notes.
Amid the chaos of the flu season, a crisis struck our nation’s health protector. In January, Politico reported that Trump-appointed CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald purchased shares from a tobacco company a month into the job. She was forced to resign. In the following months, there hasn’t been a permanent replacement, with growing fears that her replacement may share Trump’s anti-vaccine stance. Last week, the President appointed HIV/AIDS researcher Robert Redfield to head the agency. His views on vaccines are not known yet.
The anti-vaxxers movement is not a force to be taken lightly, as they are indirectly responsible for the return of measles, nearly eradicated at one point. The movement is gaining support as 1 in 5 millennials believes that vaccines cause autism. Despite their reputation as the most socially aware generation, it also is apparently the generation most likely to believe the long-disproven belief about vaccines and autism.
One “shot” in the dark is a universal vaccine. There is growing support in Congress for a $1 billion investment through a bill, proposed by several senators, including Connecticut’s Blumenthal, to fund NIH research from 2019-2023. In a CNBC article, Peter Palese, a microbiologist working on an actual universal vaccine, insists that the possibility is only “years” away. It is expected to be “75 perfect effective,” much higher than the current vaccine. Though it sounds hopeful, it doesn’t solve the problem of the flu virus’s mutations, so it is possible that each flu season the virus could evolve into something that evades a universal vaccine. Besides that, there’s the issue of availability, if the supply will keep up with the demand.
After reaching its peak in February, the season is gradually winding down. And researchers are now concerned about the 2018-2019 flu season. This year’s unusually long flu season leaves little time to prepare new vaccines for next fall, assuming the virus doesn’t mutate.
Medical advancements over the last century have prevented us from experiencing another pandemic on the scale of the 1918 influenza outbreak. However, the virus’s rapid mutations may soon outpace medical science, and history could repeat itself with bigger problems if not enough attention is given to basic hygiene and medical developments.