Friday, December 12, 2003


Had a conversation with a friend the other day about the flu epidemic in America -- I think she was trying was trying to empathize with me, the sickliest of the sick here in Scotland this year -- so while I was sort of prepared for this article, I still found myself scared witless by this new Fujian strain of the flu. *shudder*

As the virus now spreads from its original epicenters in Texas and Colorado, many of those most at risk of dying from the flu—the old, the very young, and those with underlying medical problems—will not be able to get vaccinated. In addition, because health care workers have been notoriously lax about getting their shots (a mere one-third got vaccinated last year), we could soon be witnessing emergency rooms crowded with people violently ill with the flu and without enough medical staff to care for them.

Is such a drastic scenario inevitable? The virus could die out and not strike other places as hard as it hit the first states, but based on past years, that seems unlikely. Nowadays, doctors can also prescribe four antiviral drugs to treat and prevent influenza—but, no surprise, those already are in short supply because in many parts of the country where the vaccine has run out, doctors already have been using them, and there is no plan for ramping up production. If the epidemic does get very bad, our best defense will be thorough hand-washing and medical masks for health workers and patients brought into hospitals where there are not enough isolation facilities, but we could soon face a shortage of masks as well.

[. . .]

Bad as they are, the difficulties in coping with this year's influenza epidemic are like the tiny tremors in California that remind you of the looming Big One. In the world of influenza, the Big One is a pandemic—a strain of influenza so different from what has circulated before that people have no immunity. That's what happened in 1918 when the flu killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide. Pandemics that killed well over half a million also struck in both 1957 and 1968.

La la la la... not reading any more. La la la la la.