Monday, July 24, 2006

Pandemic flu: Why should you care?

To many people, the possibility of a flu pandemic seems like just another one of those far-off, scary "what-ifs" that we hear about every so often. But at the beginning of the last century, it was a reality. From 1918 to 1919, avian flu swept across the globe, killing 20 million people, including 675,000 in the United States.

The disease was fast-spreading and frighteningly lethal, 25 times more deadly than the regular flu. Across the country, schools and churches were closed. Young victims lay gasping for air in their hospital beds as their lungs filled up with fluid. In many cases, doctors were unable to do much except helplessly watch their patients die. On a single day in Philadelphia in 1918, almost 800 people died. Cities had trouble keeping up with the burials of the dead.

Because of that pandemic, history has taught us to be wary of avian flu. Right now, a strain of avian flu called H5N1 has health officials around the globe worried. Since December, 2003, about 230 cases of H5N1 have been reported in humans, with 131 deaths. Right now, the disease is mostly infecting chickens and other poultry. Scientists are concerned, however, that the strain could soon turn into one that could quickly spread from person to person, much the way the common cold is passed along. If that happens, more than 1.9 million Americans could die, according to estimates.

Almost 2 million deaths, that's a lot of people. It's equivalent to more than 13,000 plane crashes, half of all the babies born in the United States in 2004 or the entire population of Houston, Texas. The chances are good that at least a few of those people would be someone you know or love. It could be your co-worker, your teacher, your child.

The reality is that if a pandemic hits the United States, all of us will be affected. And unfortunately, we are not ready yet. If a pandemic occurred tomorrow, our government, hospitals and health departments would be overwhelmed. And most people just aren't prepared.

That's why it's important that you should get ready now, and why we need to work to prepare our communities. The question we are faced with now is not "why should I care?" It's "how can I get ready?"

Photo: Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. From the National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress).


Gayle Casel, MPH Student said...

Very effective in making this disease a reality rather than just a rumor.

Ash said...

The informal (yet scientific) approach embraced by this blog makes it stand out. Consequently, it is an immense improvement over the monotonous scientific sheets and "PDF" files that offer pure, undiluted hard to digest information. A truly commendable effort!!!!

MPH student in Hawaii said...

By the end of this entry, "how can I get ready" was the exact thought I had in mind.