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100 Years After Spanish Flu Pandemic, Influenza Research Opportunities Abound

In this issue of Contagion®, we mark the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which is reported to have caused more deaths in a single year than the Black Death that spread across Europe in the 14th century from 1346-1353. The influenza virus infected about 500 million individuals (one-third of the world’s population at the time) and close to 50 million died; 675,000 of these deaths were in the United States.

Researchers in the infectious diseases (ID) field are steadfast in their efforts to predict when the next big outbreak will hit. They agree that there will be another Spanish flu–like pandemic, but worry that we will be unprepared. As Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota laments in the article, “It is going to occur. It’s just a matter of when and where it starts.”

Other health experts from around the world, such as Margaret Chan, MD, former director-general of the World Health Organization have warned that we have not done enough to prepare for the next pandemic, and countries are vulnerable as their populations grow and globalization increases. The influenza virus evolves from year to year, including those strains that are transmissible from animal to human, such as the H7N9 bird flu. According to Dr. Osterholm, H7N9 and its swine flu cousin, H1N1, are being watched very carefully. Indeed, he expects the next pandemic flu outbreak will be zoonotic in origin. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added, “[In 2009, H1N1] was percolating in the swine population for a while. We weren’t monitoring the population particularly well, so we missed it.”

Although there has been progress toward developing a universal flu vaccine, this space represents a tremendous opportunity for innovative research and an entrepreneurial approach to develop a response to protect the world’s population against a serious health threat. So much so that Bill and Melinda Gates have provided significant funding, to the tune of $100 million over the next 5 years, to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The coalition is aimed at developing vaccines against known diseases, such as influenza, and investing in next-generation technologies.

At a time when many in the health care field are focusing on curing mainstay issues such as diabetes and heart disease, it is important to take a step back and remember that despite all our advances in medicine, we remain vulnerable. Let us take this time, as we mark the anniversary of a devastating pandemic, to remind ourselves to remain vigilant and stay out ahead of problems before they arise. Contagion® remains dedicated to keeping our readers informed on the latest news in ID through our print journal, website, and email newsletters.

Stay informed, and thanks for reading! 

Mike Hennessy, Sr
Chairman and CEO

Walsh B. The world is not ready for the next pandemic. Time. May 4, 2017. Accessed February 6, 2018.

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