I was thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic recently, and I wondered how we would communicate with a time traveler from just two years ago. I had to do this thought exercise a few years ago when I had to create a paragraph in modern English that would make no sense to a time traveler from 1965. Think about the words that we use in common conversation that would make no sense to them — gigabytes, smartphones, internet, WiFi, gluten-free, and so many more.
While at my local coffee joint drinking my favorite and writing my previous blog post, someone said to me, “cool mask.” It’s a Star Trek mask — yes, I am a Trek nerd, don’t get me started. I then realized back in 2019, there is no way someone would put those two words together and make sense.
So, just to have fun on this Friday afternoon, I thought I’d list out some of the terms we use today that would be foreign to someone from 2019. Just a caveat first — some of these terms would be known by scientists and those who were involved with vaccines. But most would not have been said or understood in normal conversations.
We are heading towards the start of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people want to know what the future holds. Will there be more variants? Will we need more vaccines? Will there be more dumb ideas about the disease?
Well, I’m not a pseudoscientist, so I not only don’t make, but also I certainly don’t believe in predictions about the future course of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I think I can write down some science-based thoughts of what we might see over the next few months.
Of course, a fairly large group of people, including some who are pro-science (read, pro-vaccine), will fall into the arms of their favorite flu vaccine myth, and then refuse to get the flu vaccine. Given the dangers of the flu, and given the loss in productivity, income, and lives, you’d think that the flu vaccine would be near the top of health care needs for the average person.
According to the unsurprising results reported in a new study, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, in areas where laws mandate that children receive a seasonal flu vaccination, before entering preschool or day care, the rate of flu-related hospitalizations drops significantly. In this study, after Connecticut enacted a law that mandated the vaccine, the rate of children requiring hospitalization because of the flu declined by 12%.
Connecticut’s regulation for flu vaccination (pdf), which took effect in 2010, increased the uptake of childhood flu vaccinations from 67.8% to 84.1%. According to Dr. James Hadler, the lead researcher for the study, “That difference, we feel, has resulted in children attending daycare being better protected against influenza and its severe complications.”
From January 1918 through December 1920, humanity suffered through the one of the worst pandemics of infectious disease for the last 100 years or so. The world was hit by what was called the Spanish Flu (not because it started there, but because news of the flu was censored in most countries involved in World War I, but Spanish news wasn’t censored, so it appeared that Spain was being devastated by the disease). According to conservative estimates, despite how antivaccination cultists portray flu pandemic estimates, nearly 500 million people worldwide were hit with this flu, and somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died, nearly 5% of the world population at the time. Moreover, the majority of deaths were amongst healthy young males, not, as antivaccination tropes often claim, just to those who are sick and weak already.
A recent article called the 1918 flu pandemic the “mother of all pandemics,” and not just for some rhetorical, literary effect. In fact, the 1918 flu, an H1N1 subtype, is the mother of nearly all subsequent influenza A (for avian) pandemics since 1918–in other words, the original H1N1 subtype has mutated into nearly all of the other subtypes of avian flu.
For example, H2N2 influenza A viruses, which derived from a mutation in the H1N1 subtype while it circulated in birds, were the cause of the 1957-1958 pandemic, which killed nearly 1.5 million people worldwide. Currently, the H2N2 subtype has disappeared from humans, but it persists in wild and domestic birds. Claims that the subtype is extinct are premature.
Researchers examined the presence and potential risk of over 22 strains of avian H2N2 viruses isolated from domestic and wild birds over the past 60 years. Most of the strains replicated in mammalian cell culture, and three transmitted to ferrets, usually used a model for human infection from new flu viruses. The H2N2 virus remains highly pathogenic for mammals, including humans, and there continues to be a major risk for quickly moving from the avian reservoir to humans
The point of this story is not to say that a global apocalyptic event is just around the corner, but it could be. It’s just that if you speak with any infectious disease specialist, their greatest fears are HIV/AIDS and influenza, not some obscure novel pathogen arising quickly then dying out of existence. The influenza A virus mutates quickly, allowing it to avoid human humoral immune responses, it transmits from other species to humans easily, it spreads quickly, and it can be deadly. As recently as 2009, the H1N1 pandemic killed approximately 150,000-500,000 people worldwide.
Of course, the CDC constantly monitors when the virus jumps from the bird reservoir to humans, and if given enough time, can prepare a vaccine to help prevent it. Let’s hope people are smart enough to get it.
If you have any reluctance about having your children receive their annual flu vaccination, look at the chart below:
Children die from the flu virus–282 innocent children died from the flu in 2009-10, 122 in 2010-11, 34 in 2011-12. So far this flu season, 6 children have died. The number varies from highs during pandemic years, such as in 2009-10, and lower in non-pandemic years.
The CDC predicts that 2012-13 could be serious, and the current flu vaccine protects against 3 subtypes of the seasonal flu in North America:
In 2009, the H1N1 flu pandemic was an influenza pandemic that was first described in April 2009. The virus appeared to be a new strain of H1N1, which was responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic, that arose from a triple reassortment of bird, swine and human flu viruses that then further combined with a Eurasian pig flu virus, leading to the term “swine flu” to be used for this pandemic. Unlike other strains of flu, H1N1 does not disproportionately infect older adults (greater than 60 years), which makes this a characteristic feature of this H1N1 pandemic, and made it especially dangerous to children. The CDC has reported some sobering worldwide statistics for the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, including that between 151,700 and 575,400 people perished worldwide from 2009 H1N1 virus infection during the first year the virus circulated. Continue reading “The importance of flu surveillance”