Flu killed 65,000 people last year, but we don't seem to care

 Flu killed 65,000 people last year, but we don't seem to care
© Pixabay

It’s September 1918 at Camp Funston, in central Kansas, a young soldier is awaiting his departure to France to fight in World War 1. One night he feels chills, spikes a fever. The next day he notices a bluish tint to his skin. Within a week he’s dead — suffocating from fluid in his lungs.

Many historians speculate that the “Spanish Flu” actually began in Kansas. But the 1918 pandemic killed more people in one year than AIDS has killed in 40 years, more than the bubonic plague killed in a century. Today, 100 years later, we cannot say we are immune to a similar outbreak.

ADVERTISEMENT

Question: Would we accept a jumbo jet with 500 people on board crashing to earth 1,000 times every year? Of course not. We would demand a better effort from industry and government to save those 500,000 lives worldwide per year. 

Somehow, 12,000 to 65,000 deaths from the influenza virus each year in the U.S. alone has become acceptable to us. In fact, last year was the worst flu season in 40 years — 80,000 flu-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Most years it is the elderly who pay the highest price — 80 percent of flu deaths are in people over 65, but their cause of death is usually noted as pneumonia. This year what’s making news is that the strains in circulation are killing people of all ages — young, healthy women and men and a chilling 100 reported deaths of children so far just in the U.S.

Part of the problem is that we’re relying on a vaccine technology that:

1) Makes a good estimate each year as to the three or four strains that will be most common out of thousands possible. A good estimate usually, but still an estimate

2) Today’s vaccine technology relies on design and manufacturing that is little different than what was in place more than 50 years ago — a flu vaccine that begins growing in eggs. Would you use a phone or watch a TV with technology from the 1950s?

This needs to change. I’m calling for a “Moon Shot” scale effort to address our response to the seasonal (annual) flu virus before we face a once-in-a-lifetime flu pandemic. We need to fully engage the capacity of the private sector coupled with government and non-governmental support to provide solutions. 

Working together, fully funded, we can create a public and private partnership to find the holy grail of infectious medicine — a universal flu vaccine. This vaccine would have the ability to cover many strains and even be ready to protect against in-season shifts in flu strains.

We have the technology and from a variety of funding sources — we have the money. In fact, the cost of the status quo is very substantial. A recent estimate of the total economic cost of influenza in the U.S., i.e. medical and indirect costs, is about $35 billion annually. Therefore, at some point an improvement in influenza prevention will effectively pay for itself. We need the political will and industrial and government leadership to throw off a 20th century flu response system that was good for its time and rapidly build a new one for the 21st century.

We need to develop an innovative partnership for influenza. Imagine what we could accomplish to fight the flu — instead of where we are today as we hope this year’s vaccine matches strains in circulation. We normally expect the annual flu vaccine helps between 10 and 60 percent who get it — only 36 percent overall as this year’s flu vaccines do in the U.S. Imagine what industry, non-profits, governments and academia coming together could do to protect us from the next flu epidemic or pandemic?

Let’s be honest, although flu seasons and strains are unpredictable, our response to the flu epidemic this year (and in many past years) was woefully inadequate and it cost too many lives. Our Zika response was just as ineffective, especially for our citizens in Puerto Rico.

We owe Americans better, particularly since advancements in vaccine technology and effectiveness have made the prospect of preventing epidemics well within reach. This becomes all the more crucial as more virulent strains of the flu and other infectious diseases loom just on the horizon and even already in animals around the world. 

We must re-examine how we prepare for inevitable, more lethal outbreaks in the future. We need to figure out how to more fully engage the total capacity of economy and our research expertise (both in government and in the private sector) so as to employ all the resources at our disposal in order to achieve victory over diseases that we have already virtually conquered in the laboratory. 

No one company, one university lab, one government facility is going to find a universal flu vaccine. But, together, it’s within our reach.

J. Joseph Kim, Ph.D., entrepreneur, immunologist and health policy leader, is co-founder and chief executive officer of Inovio, a biotechnology company developing novel immunotherapies — medicines that attack a broad array of cancers and challenging infectious diseases by training the body’s immune system to identify and fight disease.