Influenza is a virus affecting the respiratory organs, as evidenced by coughing, sneezing, high fever, headache, and sore throat. The transfer of respiratory droplets from the host to others spreads the virus. When the host coughs or sneezes, manners dictate that he cover his mouth. This places the virus onto his hands, sleeves, or into the air. The host can then touch a doorknob or other surface. When a second person touches the same surface, he is not yet infected. It is when he touches his face around his nose or mouth, that he becomes infected with the virus. These respiratory droplets contain the virus in its contagious state for up to eight hours. A healthy person hosting the virus can be contagious for up to two weeks, including before symptoms even occur.
At least 30, 000 people die each year during influenza season, while a pandemic can occur every 30 to 40 years. Incidences of seasonal influenza have been recorded for hundreds of years, and few people worry about catching it. Pandemics cause more concern, even though deaths from specific strains of the flu can be few or many. This may be because the seasonal flu has had a vaccine created for it, whereas a pandemic flu may not. These pandemic influenzas can cover the globe in a short period of time with little or no treatment.
The most renowned flu season was the Spanish flu of 1918. Although named for the many Spaniards that died, this flu probably began in America. It was the end of World War I, and America had joined the war efforts. Soldiers, ill with the flu, were sent overseas and inadvertently spread a violent form of the flu. Over one fifth of the world’s population became ill, with up to 50 million people dying.
Hong Kong and Swine flu
Another pandemic involved the Hong Kong flu. This flu occurred in the 1960’s and claimed over 700,000 lives. The Swine flu in 1976 caused problems besides the flu. The vaccine created to protect people also claimed lives as well. Most recently, the Swine flu of 2009 is just beginning to make it known, becoming a pandemic in June 2009. A vaccine is currently in the process of being made.
Purpose of vaccine
So what purpose does a vaccine serve? A vaccine is simply a small taste of the virus introduced into our bloodstream. This “taste” teaches the body about the virus so it can make antibodies in case it comes in contact with the virus again. It was first discovered in patients who, after exposure to cow pox, were not able to “catch” smallpox. Nowadays, vaccines are commonplace for numerous illnesses, from smallpox to rotavirus. Influenza, since it occurs yearly, has been studied extensively. Influenza is comprised of many strains, so researchers study and compare which three strains are most likely to strike during the next flu season, and make a vaccine with these three strains. While the success rate is never 100%, it is accurate enough to ward off a pandemic containing those particular strains.
Regardless of the success rate of the vaccine, over 30,000 people still die from the effects of the flu, usually the youngest, oldest and unhealthiest of the population. Doctor’s offices are filled yearly with patients complaining of flu-like symptoms. These people want their suffering eased, and will request any sort of treatment, including antibiotics. The antibiotics do not work on viruses, as they were made for bacterial infections. Researchers went back to work and came up with antiviral medications such as Tamiflu and Relenza. These medications work to ease the symptoms of influenza and shorten the length of the illness by one to two days.
With the advent of air travel, it is easier than ever to transfer viruses around the world. It takes only minutes to infect someone, and then that person can infect the next person, and so on. The reporting of these infections occur faster now as well, with telephones, web cams, and the Internet, so the world’s population can be educated quickly on how to prevent the spread of the flu. It is possible that if the current pandemic had occurred in the last century, the world would not be aware of its existence, and it would be able to spread rapidly.