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Our Complacency About the Flu is Killing Us

Our Complacency About the Flu is Killing Us
From TIME - January 19, 2018

Everyones talkingand rightly soabout this years flu season, which is on its way to becoming the worst in 15 years. The news is full of stories about hospitals resorting to tents to accommodate the influx of patients and parents dealing with school closings in nearly every state. We count and mourn the dead. As a family doctor, my heart is with those patients and their families. As a global health professional with four decades of experience in combating epidemics, my mind is on the one critical thing we arent talking about at all as we suffer in this flu season: complacency. Put plainly, our collective flu complacency is what is killing us.

Our usual response to annual flu is not enough to combat the risks we face this week, let alone prepare us for the even deadlier pandemic flu most experts agree well face in the future. Yes, we have an annual vaccine, and everyone eligible should get one without question. The reality, however, is that we remain stuck at immunization rates under 50%. And the flu vaccine we have is only 60% effective in the best years and 10% effective in the worst years. The current flu vaccine is better than nothing. We urgently need a much, much more effective flu vaccine.

Yes, we know to close schools and places where the public gathers at close quarters indoors, like movie theaters. But we dont always move soon enough or in a timely manner. Yes, we know that we should wash our hands, cover coughs and sneezes and stay home when sick. But we dont always.

People suffer and die needlessly. In the worst years, in the U.S. alone, seasonal flu causes up to 36 million infections, three-quarters of a million hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths. We are not taking the time and investing the resources needed to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.

Why not? Complacency.

This is not a new human phenomenon. Im talking about the cycle of panic-neglect-panic-neglect that we have seen with epidemic response over the decades. This cycle is common to human lives in ways small and large. We do it with our houses, cars and even healthcare. But short memories are our downfall. They may even be our death when it comes to diseases like the flu, unless we act. We havent been hit by a truly devastating pandemic in a long time. So as individuals, we let down our guard as our leaders quietly defund and de-staff the services we need to protect us.

I truly believe the risk to humanity of continued foot-dragging is huge. Scientists and health officials know whats needed and what we should be doing. But were simply not moving fast enough with the right leadership and enough resources.

MORE: This Flu Map Shows How the Biggest Influenza Outbreak in Years Spread Across the U.S.

Let there be no mistake: in a severe pandemic, the U.S. healthcare system could be overwhelmed in just weeks. Hospitals and clinics would be forced to turn away millions of patients. Critical medications and care would not reach people in time. Millions of people in every state would be felled by the virus, and hundreds of thousandsincluding newborn babies, toddlers and older adultswould die in the weeks and months following the initial outbreak. The GDP in the United States would plummet as much as $2 billion, if not more.

Inadequate preparedness programsand the investments required to fund and sustain themmean that even with some of the best available healthcare there is, the United States remains woefully susceptible to a major future flu epidemic that might make this years widespread lethal outbreak look mild in comparison. Over the last decade, the federal government has cut upwards of 50% of its funding for the U.S. Public Health Emergency Preparedness program that it created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack to protect against bioterror, pandemics and other public health emergencies. This has cost state and local health departments some 45,000 jobs. And the Trump administration is now calling for even more draconian budget cuts.

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