Everyone’s talking—and rightly so—about this year’s 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 aren’t 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 we’ll 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 don’t 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 don’t 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. I’m 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 haven’t 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 what’s needed and what we should be doing. But we’re simply not moving fast enough with the right leadership and enough resources.
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 thousands—including newborn babies, toddlers and older adults—would 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 programs—and the investments required to fund and sustain them—mean 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 year’s 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.
The cost of preventing epidemics is roughly a tenth of what it costs to cope with them when they hit. Over a decade ago, renowned professor Dr. Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota issued a clarion call for a billion-dollar-per-year U.S. commitment to development of a universal flu vaccine. But his call has been neither heard nor heeded. Annual funding to find a universal vaccine has never approached even $100 million a year, even as the seasonal flu has cost the U.S. economy an estimated $87 billion a year.
Why do we as a nation continue to leave ourselves vulnerable? The shockingly simple answer lies in our collective complacency. As soon as headlines about the flu are gone, hospitals are emptied of flu patients, schools are back in session and workplace absenteeism declines, we go back to business as usual. Pandemic preparedness plans are put back on the shelf. Funding for public health preparedness and flu R&D disappears into a haze of competing demands.
To shake this collective complacency—and make our country and the world as safe as possible from these serious and all too real public health threats—each of us must recognize pandemic prevention and preparedness as matters of both personal and political urgency.
What can you do?
At the personal level, you can learn the essentials of reducing flu transmission in your family and local community. You can make sure the leadership at your local health department, your children’s school, your town or city, your college or university, your workplace, your community center or your place of worship have all established a clear and sensible pandemic flu preparedness plan and are holding annual epidemic readiness drills. And you can make sure that everyone in your family receives the annual flu shot. Today, less than a quarter of young Americans take the annual flu shot, and 20% believe the long-disproven myth that vaccines can cause autism.
From a political standpoint, you can reach out to your congressional representatives to encourage them to support funding of programs that keep state and local health departments strong. You can also support the work of the CDC Foundation, Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and the Trust for America’s Health.
Leading scientists and public health officials have the capability to keep us much safer from devastating influenza pandemics. They need your prompt and decisive support to succeed. Your action today may be a matter of life and death for you and your loved ones.
Dr. Quick is a senior fellow at the nonprofit Management Sciences for Health and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. His new book, “The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It,” will be published January 30 by St. Martin’s Press.