By Nicolette Louissaint, Ph.D.
It is especially important to note that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak that infected more than half a billion people globally and killed between 20 to 50 million. With this history in mind, now is the time to take stock of where we are on pandemic flu preparedness, and whether we are ready to respond to another serious global threat.
This severe flu season was worsened by a vaccine that was a poor match for the most active strains of the flu, and a shortage of IV saline products used for hydrating infected patients. However, with the peak of flu season behind us, we can now assess the very real threat of a pandemic flu.
There has been continuous discussion, and erratic investment, in pandemic flu vaccine research and development. The reality is that if faced with a pandemic flu outbreak, the global community would need to have research and development well underway, and the production capacity in place to support a rapid response to combat the flu strain. While we have a long way to go, broad investment in science will help close the gap in being more prepared for this threat.
While we should invest in the science, we also need to contend with other social realities that influence our ability to respond to a pandemic flu outbreak. For a vaccine to work during a pandemic, we need to convince large populations of the idea of a mass vaccination campaign. A history of negative medical interactions, along with the challenge of poor science communication, have made it difficult for medical professionals (including public health) to convince people to get vaccinated. For example, significant portions of the Black community in the U.S. and abroad recall the Tuskegee experiment as a pressing example of why medical research interventions, especially those with injections, should not be trusted. In addition, we’re now seeing large populations that completely reject the idea of vaccinations, including childhood vaccinations. This reluctance and fear increases the risk, especially for low-income communities with poor health outcomes to feel the negative effects of a pandemic or disasters.
If we are not able to communicate the threat of the seasonal flu and the importance of vaccination in the absence of a pandemic threat, it will surely be more challenging to communicate amid crisis. This will prove especially difficult when convincing people in high-risk communities to get vaccinated, as focus is often on immediate and pressing needs, rather than preparing for something that may not even happen.
Scientific investments are important, but so is understanding the mistrust between certain patient populations and public health. The scientific and medical communities are well aware of the threat of the pandemic flu, and while we are inching closer on the science, we should start moving the needle even more aggressively on how to communicate and work with patients on threats like this before it becomes a significant public health threat.