This flu season is a rough one. But you know that.
New York’s health department reported 2,221 new hospitalizations and 11,683 lab-confirmed cases for the week ending Jan. 27. Those are the highest weekly numbers statewide since reporting began in 2004. Nationally, it could be the worst season since 2014-15, when 34 million Americans got the flu and about 56,000 died.
That’s bad, but not apocalyptic. Apocalyptic would be something like the influenza pandemic 100 years ago when 50 million people died worldwide.
While that sounds like something that could happen only in the bad old days, epidemiologists warn that a lethal virus like the one that exploded in 1918 could recur, with airplane travel and modern population density enabling its spread. A century later, a dangerous flu strain could kill 200 million to 400 million people worldwide.
The flu season has tapered off in McLean County after it hit hard in December. But like in other parts of the country, health experts warned last week that the flu remains widespread here despite the decline that started in mid-January; by that point, almost 1,000 people had tested positive for flu in McLean County and three people died around Christmas.
"It is difficult to predict if we will continue to decrease or if we may see it increase again as it has in some parts of the country,” said Laurel Mode, infection preventionist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center.
The lack of an effective vaccine has to do with two reasons — the difficulty of targeting an ever-evolving set of viruses, and the structure of profit-based pharmacology.
Traditional vaccines like those for measles, mumps and rubella, or yellow fever work very well; they are over 97 percent effective. The worst thing about them for pharmaceutical manufacturers is that they work well for many, many years. There isn’t much profit in a drug people take once or twice. So, there’s little commercial incentive to invent a flu vaccine that works well against every possible strain of the disease.
A different way of funding the hunt is needed and it won’t be easy because drug companies are quite happy making $3 billion a year on annual flu vaccines that usually aren’t that effective, as anyone who's had the shot and still got ill can attest.
While flu viruses mutate, all of them share common traits. A long-lasting “universal flu vaccine” that provides immunity against the core of all strains, including those humans could catch from animals, is what’s needed. While the common traits are the hardest to target, scientists believe a universal vaccine is possible, and slow progress is being made by several academic teams.
An all-hands-on-deck “Manhattan Project” response with investments and organizational help from world governments and philanthropies, and financial rewards for developing the vaccine, is the best way to reach the goal. For now, however, there is little alternative to vaccination, frequent hand-washing and discreet sneezes. Stay home from work or school when you’re sick, get tested and take antiviral medications when diagnosed with the flu.
These are largely ineffective solutions to a potentially catastrophic problem. And if we wait for the next pandemic, or depend entirely on the profit motivations of the pharmaceutical industry for protection, the carnage could be unlike anything we’ve seen for a century.