Date: December 7th, 2015
Influenza, or the flu, is a contagious respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. Each year, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, with more than 200,000 people hospitalized, and anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 dying from complications. Typical symptoms of the flu include fever, body aches, chills, fatigue, cough, sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose. Sometimes it can lead to severe complications such as pneumonia. Young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at high risk for serious complications.
The virus is highly contagious and easily transmitted from person to person via droplets from coughing, sneezing, or talking. People with the flu can spread the virus to others as far as six feet away.
Historical Efforts to Treat the Flu
Flu activity can reach epidemic and sometimes pandemic levels if the number of cases is higher than expected or has a worldwide impact. Notable pandemics have taken place in 1918-1919, 1957-1958, and as recently as 2009-2010.
How we have prevented and treated the flu has changed dramatically over the years. In the pandemic of 1918, 500 million people around the world were infected, and 50 to 100 million people died. That pandemic was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, in large part because of the inadequate treatments at the time. Back then, understanding of the disease was limited, so efforts to contain the spread were largely unsuccessful, as were attempts to treat it. Herbs, rubs, and other medicines with secret ingredients were used, as were sweating and bleeding treatments. People also created home remedies, such as mixing water, salt, and coal oil.
In the pandemic of 1957, antibiotics such as penicillin had been developed and were used to treat the flu. However, antibiotics fight bacteria so they had no impact on the influenza virus. On a more positive note, the virus was tracked through a global network of laboratories, which helped to contain its spread.
By the pandemic of 2009, a new strain of the virus hit the young and healthy harder than previous outbreaks. Vaccines helped to prevent new cases, and when the outbreak expanded, antiviral drugs were used to heal people faster and help prevent serious complications.
What’s Next in Flu Treatment?
Experts at the Department of Microbiology and the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York believe that the seasonal influenza virus vaccine is too limited and that we should be able to provide universal and long-term protection against the flu. While science hasn’t caught up to this idea yet, these scientists believe in the need for a vaccine that would induce lifelong immunity, comparable to vaccines that are currently available for measles and polio. This type of immunity would help prevent epidemic and pandemic outbreaks that could significantly impact the global population.
Preventing the Flu
There are some ways you can help prevent the spread of the flu.
- Get a vaccination.
- If you do get the flu, be sure to limit your contact with others.
- Wash your hands frequently.