In April 2010, Time Magazine published “One Year Later: 5 Lessons from the H1N1 Pandemic.”
The piece reviews the H1N1 viral outbreak of 2009 and highlights interesting issues associated with this pandemic and how both the government and public may improve their responses to epidemiological outbreaks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the originally dubbed “swine flu” as an influenza pandemic in June 2009. At that time, the majority of the public did not have immunological protection against the virus, which began to enter the human population in Mexico. The outbreak quickly created chaos in the global healthcare system, leading to many global disruptions ranging from school closures to quarantines.
The article outlined five key lessons from this pandemic.
1. H1N1 was more serious than we thought.
It took only a few weeks for the H1N1 virus to spread around the world; however, epidemiologists did not know whether or not it would be deadly. Unlike the regular flu that tends to mostly affect the elderly or those susceptible to viral infection, H1N1 was a threat to everyone. A study recently published in the BMC Infectious Diseases journal revealed that over 75% of cases recorded in the initial months of the outbreak occurred in those under 30 years of age, with the highest proportion in younger patients between the ages of 10 and 19.
2. Preparing for a pandemic is complicated.
Officials originally believed that the next pandemic would find its source in Asian chicken farms. Since 2003, when the H5N1 avian flu outbreak occurred in Southeast Asia, this particular virus was monitored for a mutation to enter the human genome. However, a Mexican swine-based flu was somewhat of a surprise, indicating that viral threats can be unexpected and cannot be specifically prepared for.
3. Improving surveillance may lead to prevention.
With improved viral surveillance, potentially dangerous viruses could be contained while they are still affecting animals so that the viruses do not infect humans. Although the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) is linked to the WHO, funding for animals is significantly lower. The non-governmental organization (NGO) Global Viral Forecasting Initiative hopes to monitor human populations that are regularly exposed to animals, such as hunters in Africa, to detect viruses as early as possible.
4. Vaccine manufacturing may be outpaced by viruses.
Timing on vaccine manufacturing is important. At the time of the H1N1 outbreak, the U.S. had a low level of internal manufacturing capacity. Once manufacturing began, millions of doses were promised; however, distribution was delayed multiple times. The limiting factor is the mode of vaccine manufacturing. Vaccines are currently grown in single doses in chicken eggs. While the flu vaccine can take months to produce, the virus itself can span the globe in a matter of days.
5. The importance of maintaining public trust.
If the public perceives that officials overemphasized the seriousness of the H1N1 virus, this may affect how the public reacts during the next outbreak. It is important to explain to the public that a pandemic is an epidemic, or an outbreak of a disease that affects many individuals and spans a large region of the world. The public also needs to be better informed on viral virulence, or the severity of disease it is capable of causing.
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