Monday, April 19, 2010

Research and Public Health Tackle the Flu Together

We are currently at the end stages of the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic. Over the past few months, both the public health and medical communities have focused on preventing people from getting the flu, through vaccines and also practicing good hand hygiene.

Even though medicine and public health have synchronized messages in regards to the H1N1, unfortunately, we have still seen 16, 713 H1N1 related deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. This number is very large, but compared to the Spanish Influenza’s death toll, which was the world’s first encounter with H1N1, it’s obvious that medical research and public health have saved millions of lives in this current outbreak.

During the Spanish flu, an estimated 3% of the world's population died, which translates to about 50-100 million people. Because so many people died from the Spanish flu, the average life span was reduced by 10 years. Unlike the flu strains that that we are used to seeing, that affects the very young and the very old, this epidemic was the most deadly for people between the ages of 20 and 40, the working population, which led to significant economic consequences worldwide.

At the time, medicine had no way to treat flu patients, so doctors were left to do whatever they deemed necessary in order to try to help patients other. Many doctors tried bleeding patients and giving oxygen. The only treatment that showed some effectiveness were blood transfusions from patients that recovered from the flu to sick patients.

We now why blood transfusions had some sort of effectiveness in treating the flu because of our understanding of anti-bodies and how the immune system can fends off illness but this treatment provided the basic knowledge that lead to the discovery of the flu vaccine in 1945. This was arguably the most significant public health achievement in relation to influenza.

Public health contributed to our knowledge of sanitation, and preventing the spread of the flu from person to person by properly washing our hands; and more recently, using alcohol based hand sanitizer to kill germs and viruses on contact. Social distancing is also a major public health message; staying home from school or work is important in order to prevent others from getting the flu as well.

While people are at home sick, they can treat their flu symptoms themselves, thanks to the discovery and wide spread use of over the counter medications such as Theraflu and fever reducers, like Advil. And more recently, anti-viral medications have become widely available for the treatment of the flu. Antivirals are medicines that act directly on viruses to stop them from multiplying. Both Tamilflu and Relenza have been widely prescribed for H1N1 patients in the current outbreak.

So thanks to the contributions of public health and medical research, the flu has become more manageable, and much of its threat is still in the past.

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