Swine Flu Pandemic: Rehearsal for the Future?

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Medical experts are learning several lessons from last year's swine flu pandemic, CBN News has discovered.

These days Dr. Robert Fink, a pediatrician, is seeing mostly healthy kids who need their back-to-school checkups. It's a far cry from the near hysteria one year ago.

Despite fears of a world-wide crisis, while many people contract the flu last year, relatively few died from it. The World Health Organization announced the official end of the Swine Flu, or H1N1, pandemic during the first week of August.

"The actual very first case of H1N1 was seen in our office," Fink recalled. "We had the Health Department out. Everyone was wearing masks. There was a lot of concern that this could be a serious, very life-threatening illness. But it turned out to be a mild one."

"I think it was blown out of proportion," Susan Schofield, a mother of three children, said. "We did not get vaccinated. Only my oldest did because he got it through school, and we didn't have any problems with it."

What about This Year?

But what about this year? Pediatricians are warning parents against developing a false sense of security. The swine flu is expected to return and parents are being urged to take the necessary precautions.

"All children over six months of age, and for that matter adults, it's recommended that they be immunized this year against influenza. And the influenza vaccine this year will contain the vaccine for H1N1," Fink told CBN News. "So instead of two shots, this year there is one that combines seasonal flu with H1N1"

This year's flu vaccine will arrive in doctor's offices in just a couple of weeks. Experts hope to avoid what happened last year when the government purchased 160 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine, but nearly half of those 70 million doses, were never used, and will now have to be destroyed.

Learning from the Past

Why? Poor timing, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"The swine flu peaked right after the children came back from their summer vacation and school," Fauci said. "We started seeing infections in the beginning of September peak, and in October, and then they went down."

"The vaccine was not ready to be distributed in its full amount until later on in the year, so there was unfortunately a disconnect between availability of the vaccine and the peak of the pandemic as we experienced it," he explained.

The reason for the disconnect is that flu vaccine production is much slower than the speed of the illness itself. So, with many people travelling by airplane these days, that last year's outbreak of H1N1 spread faster in six weeks than the past two pandemics, in 1957 and 1968, did in six months.

The World Health Organization classified H1N1 as a Phase 6 pandemic -- the highest level -- based on how widespread it was. But it turned out to be not that severe, only a low-level category 1 in terms of how deadly it was.

Enough Vaccines Not Available

Still, that could have worsened at any time.

Dr. Edward Oldfield, director of Infectious Disease at Eastern Virginia Medical School, said the relative mildness of the Swine Flu pandemic averted a catastrophe since there was not enough of the vaccine available during its peak.

"I think we need to thank God that it wasn't a category 5 and it was only a category 1," he said. "Twelve thousand people died. Over 500 children had documented deaths due to influenza. That's not mild, but if it had been category 5 -- that would have been one million deaths in the United States last year."

Most flu vaccines, including last year's H1N1 vaccine, are manufactured by growing the flu virus in a chicken egg. But scientists want to do away with this painstaking method because it takes months to get the job done. There's also no way to protect against the deadly Avian Bird Flu.

"Fifty-nine percent of people who have gotten the bird flu have died and that was the real concern. Not that we would have the swine flu, but people were concerned about three years ago that the bird flu would become pandemic and since those kill birds, they can't grow in a chicken egg," Oldfield added.

Protecting Against All Flu Types

Within two years, most flu vaccine companies will likely convert from growing the virus in eggs to growing it in cells, which is faster. Within ten years, they'll likely make flu vaccines using a molecular approach that doesn't require any growing of a virus at all.

Development of a universal flu vaccine is underway. The new vaccine is one that will protect against all strains of every type of flu.

"What investigators have been doing over the last several years is to try and figure out how we can create a vaccine that would induce an immune response against influenza that would cross-protect against all the different variants that could emerge," Fauci explained.

"Ones that drift a little from year to year and ones that dramatically change rarely, every few times a century as we see with pandemics," he continued.

The new vaccine may be available in the next five years. So while the Swine Flu pandemic was much ado about nothing to some people, others see it as a dress rehearsal for the next pandemic that might be much more severe.

*Originally published on August 25, 2010. 

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Lorie  Johnson

Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about health and wellness. Since medicine is constantly changing, she makes sure CBN News viewers are up-to-date on what they need to know in order to live a healthy life.  Follow Lorie on Twitter @LorieCBN and "like" her at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN.