Posted on May 05, 2009 by Sergio Ulloa
In the modern day and age we as a human race have not experienced a major pandemic outbreak since the days of the Spanish flu, where it is estimated that 50 million people of the worlds population was wiped out. Prompting the question, are we prepared this time round? Do we have adequate methods in place now to deal with an outbreak of such scale? Can we prevent a pandemic with the possible power to kill a substantial percentage of the world's population?
After less than a week of the worlds attention been drawn on the outbreak of the suspected next major pandemic, swine flu, the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised the global health alert from 3 to 4 to 5. Level 5 being a pandemic is imminent and level 6 being there is a pandemic and all humanity is at risk of catching the virus. This alertness shown today is in stark contrast to that shown during the Spanish Flu. Because of strange symptoms and lack of early dialogue between health officials of different countries, the Spanish flu initially was misdiagnosed as dengue, cholera or typhoid. This lack of early diagnosis and of Spanish flu was only exacerbated by the fact there was no global coordinated effort or central health body, thus allowing for no uniformed coordinated resistance against the pandemic, like those in place today in the form of the World Health Organization. Another significant factor contributing to the lack of early awareness during the Spanish Flu was the ignorance towards the matter shown by politicians during the pandemics infancy. This however is quite different from today where governments and politicians alike acknowledge the high risk of Swine Flu becoming a global pandemic and have begun planning for the worst case scenario. Such as in Hong Kong where a whole hotel guest list has been quarantined by the Hong Kong government upon discovering one guest there had been confirmed to be infected with Swine Flu. Similar methods have been taken around the world to contain the spread amongst local populations of swine flu.
Current antiviral stockpiles suggest that if there was a major outbreak of swine flu in the world, even the most powerful affluent nations such as U.S.A, the UK, Japan, Australia and France would only be able to treat to about quarter to half their populations. It is an even bleaker picture for those poorer nations such as Guatemala and Indonesia who would only be able to account for 2% of their populations on current stockpiles. This large gap between the levels of stockpiles held by rich and poor nations and the small amount of stockpiles held by richer nations is not surprising as stockpiling and updating stockpiles of Tamiflu and similar antiviral medicines is a costly procedure. This procedure is particularly expensive when these stockpiles may never be used. Despite the current lack of stockpiles of antiviral medicines to treat against pandemics, in 1918 on the eve of the Spanish flu most nations had no such stockpiles to treat against any future large scale pandemic. This was mainly in part due to large scale depression and weariness of countries emerging from the Great War, but also as mentioned previously ignorance towards the pandemic issue by those with decision making powers and the lack of depth of understanding how pandemics operate and mutate.
With the widespread economic downturn facing the world it may seem that we are financially unstable and unprepared for a pandemic outbreak. However this may be the case but we are structurally and financially more prepared than in 1918 during the Spanish flu outbreak.1918, post war depression and war weariness rocked Europe's financial systems. Lack of knowledge on how to fix this financial situation and post war weariness only further exacerbated the depression, allowing for perfect breeding grounds for a deadly pandemic as individuals could not afford to combat against the pandemic. Today, as bleak as the financial situation may seem, we have in place much better financial regulations and methods to help individuals pay for attaining medical services. For comparison, the current European Health system and the one in place in 1918 is a prime example of how much more we are prepared. Nowadays there are generally two options when looking for European Health Insurance; either you can take out private health insurance and pay a little extra to receive choice of hospital, procedure and have access to medical facilities readily, or you can rely on the state's national health insurance plan, whereby you can visit a public hospital at a cost subsidized by the government. These financing strategies however were not in place in 1918 to help individuals pay for medical costs and subsequently only the rich could afford to seek out professional diagnosis. This lead the Spanish Flu to have a higher mortality rate than it could have as individuals were not taking proper methods and procedures to help contain and fight the virus.
We as a human race, although may not seem it, are more prepared than ever to tackle a global pandemic. As a human race, we have learnt from our past confrontations with serious pandemics and have put in place necessary procedures, infrastructure and methods to best tackle any future pandemic. If the Swine Flu was to reach the strength of the Spanish Flu We are more alert, aware and prepared both financially and medically to tackle a pandemic this time round.