Anyone with any access to the outside world whatsoever already knows that this has already been a particularly bad year for the health concern revolving around the influenza virus, which is not great to consider since the so-called “flu season”is far from over. In fact, in some areas hospitalizations as a result of this sickness are already reaching levels commiserate with what occurred during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009. By the way, I know people like to sneer whenever the 2009 flu enters the conversation, but it was actually far more serious than the credit people give it. Pretty much, people think it was no big deal because it didn’t result in some kind of zombie apocalypse, but that is both a shortsighted and very dangerous way of thinking.
A surprising number of deaths have already been reported with the understanding that the number is actually likely to be much higher, because most deaths that are caused by the flu go unreported as such. The flu is, without a doubt, extremely active within the population this winter, and other officials are echoing the disparity among the reported numbers because it is a widely-prevalent policy that doctors are not necessarily required to report cases of influenza to their county health departments. And, such concerns are not unfounded conspiracy fodder as some might have you believe. Barely a week ago, the CDC in Atlanta announced that the flu had already reached epidemic levels in 22 states with 15 deaths being reported (this was as of 6 January, 2015). As of Sunday, 11 January that number had risen to 20 dead and the state of South Carolina had 28,000 confirmed cases, more than double what they had at the same time last year. As always, children and the elderly are considered to be the most at risk, but I would add to that the worry of any individual who happens to be immuno-suppressed for whatever reason. The CDC also readily admits in that same article linked to above that the strain going around this season seems to be comparatively much more severe.
As it is wont to do, the illness making its rounds right now is actually a mutation of the same H1N1 swine flu strain that caused the pandemic of 2009, which is now being referred to as H3N2 after its mutation into what looks like it could ultimately turn out to be a much more virulent and deadly bug. To make matters worse, even if you dutifully sat for a flu shot this year, it may do you no good whatsoever. The sad truth is that the flu shot distributed each year represents what is essentially a gamble on the part of scientists to try their best at guessing which flu strains are likely to be the ones attacking in a given season. Unfortunately, it looks like they gambled and lost this time with only approximately 1/3 of the flu strains that are going around actually being ones that the flu shot will assist you in fighting off. In two-thirds of cases, it’s no different than if you haven’t been vaccinated at all. You are simply wide-open to the disease.
So, that is the bad news regarding this year’s flu season, but what is even worse are that there are now rumblings coming from the science community that the dreaded bird flu is experiencing a resurgence with mutations that could have the potential for an extremely deadly worldwide pandemic. Whether H9N2 or H7N9, these viruses have demonstrated an almost frightening proclivity toward intermingling with other strains of influenza with which they come into contact, seemingly absorbing the strongest parts of each. What we have on our hands, as a direct result of these mutations, are bugs that are quietly working in what might as well be their very own laboratory – the immune systems of birds and sometimes pigs and humans – in order to exponentially increase their own resistance to vaccines and treatments as well as their already worrisome abilities to more widely infect the human population at large.
H7N9 Bird Flu officially acquired the ability to jump species and infect human beings in 2013. In 2014, such infections with the strain were recorded in 453 cases, 175 of them resulting in the death of the patient. Think about that. A death toll under 200 among less than 500 infected is barely enough to make a blip on the world radar, but don’t lose sight of the most important thing: if you were unlucky enough to become infected, those numbers represent a mortality rate of 38.6%. Conversely, studies seem to indicate that – fluctuating wildly every year – the typical seasonal flu is either the culprit or at least a contributor to anywhere between 3000 and 49,000 deaths every year. The important thing to remember about those numbers, however, is that those represent literally millions of cases of infection and greater than 90% of those deaths occur in patients who are over 65 years in age. That represents maybe a 4% mortality rate if cases were limited to 1 million, which they are not. Many millions of people are infected with seasonal flu every year, meaning the actual mortality percentage is likely only measured in the tenths of 1%.
Allow 1 million people to become infected with H7N9 Bird Flu, though, and that 38.6% mortality rate means close to 390,000 people dead. It is, quite literally, already 10 times more deadly than the common seasonal flu. And it is, by no stretch of the imagination, finished mutating. Literally every additional case of the disease allows a foundation upon which the bug has the opportunity to trade genes back and forth and literally affect its own evolution. That is why, when a case pops up on some poultry farm somewhere, they literally kill every bird for miles around. This isn’t science fiction or fiction at all, just as it is not the ravings of some mad conspiracy theorist preaching about the end of the world. It is hard, cold science. This is how it works, and no amount of ignoring the threat is going to make it go away. It is not a matter of “if” this occurs, but rather “when” and whether or not you and I will be ready for it.
In the end, you and I can do nothing to stop it. All we can do is to observe proper pandemic emergency preparedness in an attempt to ensure our survival.