The Vaccine Confidence Project [to 7 January 2017]
Message for the New Year: The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Heidi Larson | 4 Jan, 2017
…If we look around at the public health landscape at the start of 2017, there are a number of challenges ahead, not the least of which is growing anti-microbial resistance, which is becoming increasingly urgent. Another area, which is keeping a number of people awake at night and which I would consider the number one concern of the Vaccine Confidence Project, is the threat of a highly fatal flu pandemic.
In a 2016 year-end interview on BBC Radio with the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies, Bill Gates revealed his concerns about the vulnerability of the world to the next flu pandemic. In short, his assessment was that we’re not ready for the next “big one” when it comes to epidemics. “I cross my fingers that some epidemic like a flu doesn’t come along in the next 10 years,” says Mr Gates, confident that we will develop better tools and approaches over the next decade, but soberly expressing concerns that if we are faced with a quickly spreading fatal strain of the flu today, “it would be a tragedy.” In short, we couldn’t manage it.
At the end of November, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal, the Director of the US Centers for Disease Control, Tom Frieden, shared a similar sentiment. “Frankly, pandemic influenza is what worries us most.”
According to WHO, the “normal” seasonal flu epidemics cause serious illness in three to five million people around the world and between 250,00-500,000 people die of influenza every year. And, those are not the most virulent strains.
If we reflect on the global panic around Ebola’s fatal spread, the total death toll was just over 11,000. This is not to underestimate the extensive social and economic turmoil it also caused, but just to put the flu risk in perspective. The 1918 ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic infected 500 million people across the world, spread as far as remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million people (three to five percent of the world’s population).
Why is there such a difference between our more complacent attitude towards influenza versus more panic-prone anxieties around Ebola? Known versus unknown. Familiar versus unfamiliar. One of the challenges for pandemic flu preparedness is the widespread perception that “it’s just the flu”.
If I were to choose one new year’s message, it is that we need to work harder in peaceful times to build resilience. We can start by taking flu more seriously – ourselves, our families and neighbours…