The current focus of a lot of media attention is on the upcoming battle with H1N1 influenza and the attempts to curb the affect of the newest pandemic to circulate the globe. Humanity has been subjected to similar outbreaks in the recent past and even as early as recorded history. These pandemics are no less deadly than the ones in the past because of the virus’ ability to mutate and become a killer once again.
Scientists now can use the information from past pandemics, particularly from the 1957-1958 pandemic, to prepare for and survey the spread of H1N1. Although the virus in 1957 was H2N2, the two viral strains are similar enough to compare in terms of severity. In modern society, the spread of viruses is a major issue because the growth of technology has made rapid transit available to the general population, which has also grown exponentially since 1957.
However, modern society has benefits as well when it comes to curbing influenza. In 1957, a quarter of the US contracted H2N2 and many died from complications of the disease, such as pneumonia. Unlike the efforts being made today, health officials in 1957 opted against quarantine, continued to host major events and meetings and did not close schools unless most students were absent. In fact, the virus had to be upgraded to the status of an epidemic after the summer ended and school was back in session because students in contact with one another spread the virus further.
At the moment, officials are encouraging people to stay at home if they feel feverish and to avoid public places. Pamphlets about the disease and websites about containing the spread have been distributed to the population. Advertisements on television remind us how to cough appropriately so as not to infect others and hand sanitizers are readily available at public places or in work spaces.
Apparently we have learned our lesson from that time because our scientists have already produced a vaccine to combat H1N1 and have begun to distribute it. In 1957, the vaccine was produced too late in the game to do much good and the quantity produced was insufficient to keep pace with the pandemic. The disease essentially had run its course in three months and then left.
Although people are upset now that there is not enough vaccine to go around, officials are doing significantly better at containing the spread of H1N1 and that is partially due to learning from experiences of the past. Viruses are constantly changing and adapting, causing these waves of influenza among the populations and that is why it is difficult to create the ultimate preventive vaccine. However, scientists can use information from the past to chart patterns and predict future outbreaks so that we can be better prepared to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
by Carolyn Littmann
Bibliography: Glezen, Paul W. “Emerging Infections: Pandemic Influenza.” Epidemologic Reviews. http://epirev.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/18/1/64.pdf