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A Brief History of Flu: The Most Dangerous Silent Killing Disease of All Time

With the world fighting coronavirus and its associated strains, what has yet again hogged the limelight is that most virus strains – such as the common cold or flu – are practically incurable by human means. No vaccines or anti-viral drugs are essentially effective in treating these diseases. And without proper treatment, even a virus nobody gets to wreak havoc in vulnerable populations.

Flu, Image credit:

Introducing Influenza

The flu or in medical terms, influenza, is an infectious disease caused by an influenza virus. The most common symptoms include runny nose, high fever, muscle, and joint pain, sore throat, headache,  fatigue, and coughing. Symptoms can range from mild to severe in different individuals, depending on health complications and family history of the weak immune response. Typically, the symptoms begin two days after exposure to the virus and most last less than a week. However, the cough may last for more than 2 weeks. There may be diarrhea and vomiting in children, which are not common in adults. Complications may include secondary bacterial pneumonia, sinus infections, viral pneumonia, and worsening of previous health problems like heart failure or asthma. Though the onset of flu is non-lethal, however, weak immune systems are prone to complications as discussed above. This makes flu the silent killer among different diseases.

Is the Flu Dangerous?

The prevalence of most deaths in the elderly with pre-existing medical conditions proves that the flu virus is responsible for reducing the average life expectancy in a person with a weak immune system and/or heart disease, asthma, motor neuron disease, etc. Another important aspect that needs to be understood is that – as per records from the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC) – many people are killed by the common influenza virus in the US. However, we don’t draft graphs for the seasonal flu-like we did for COVID-19. If we did, the same exponential increase in deaths would be noticed. As per estimates – since September 2019 – 38 million Americans have been infected, 23,000 killed and 390,000 hospitalized because of the flu.

Just because the common cold is a household name, does not in any way make it less life-threatening. Similar to the COVID-19 effects, if a person is admitted to the hospital with a compromised immune system or a disease such as cancer and also has the flu, possibility of death increases significantly. What is happening all over the world right now is the same thing, except the cause of death is specifically associated to coronavirus rather than a patient’s pre-existing condition. Cause of death – when a patient died from a flu with an underlying condition – is listed as the underlying condition and not respiratory failure due to the flu. But with the new coronavirus gaining a dreadful foothold in our global community, the cause is being listed as COVID-19 instead of a patient’s original medical history. This distorts numbers related to deaths occurring exclusively due to coronavirus. It also absolves the flu of its deathly potency in susceptible populations – which is a reckless blunder.

Virus Pandemics from History

Pandemics have wreaked havoc in the past few centuries too. The introduction of new strains of the virus – previously unknown due to less or no human exposure – led to the deaths of millions. Some of the major pandemics of the 20th century were:

  1. Spanish Flu: Estimated to have infected about 500 million people all over the globe, the Spanish flu, which lasted from 1918-1920, pushed most indigenous communities to the brink of extinction. One-fifth of the infected people died. Because of cramped conditions and poor nutrition – of both soldiers and people – the lethality of this flu was enhanced. No vaccine was developed at that time due to confusion about the nature of the microbe involved.
  1. Asian Flu: From 1957-58, the Asian flu pandemic, caused by the H2N2 virus, was another global influenza outbreak. The disease killed more than 1 million people. It had origins in China. The virus that caused this flu was a mixture of avian flu viruses. Although a vaccine was rapidly developed, it was found that more than the usual quantity was required to generate immunity.
  1. Swine Flu: With its origin in Mexico, a new strain of the H1N1 virus spread in 2009 to all parts of the globe. The virus infected 1.4 billion. According to the CDC, it killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people. The flu primarily affected children and young adults. About 80% of deaths were recorded below 65 years. Vaccine for the H1N1 virus is now included in the annual flu vaccine.
  1. West African Ebola Epidemic: This disease-ravaged West Africa between 2014-2016, with reported 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths. There is no cure for Ebola. Efforts at finding a vaccine are underway. The first known cases occurred in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.

Vaccine Development is Difficult

Given the nature of viruses, the development of vaccines can take months to years. Each type of vaccine is designed to teach our immune system to fight different kinds of viruses or bacteria. This is done to prevent any serious diseases these might cause in the future when the body is infected. We have to understand the structure of the microbe because to create a vaccine we need to know enough about the infection to be able to mimic it. A vaccine is essentially a mimicked infection. Many viral diseases can, although, be cured but there are some strains that redevelop due to microbe mutation – and unfortunately are much deadlier than their predecessors. Therefore, it is always difficult to produce a vaccine that can take care of all strains of a single virus –  just like in the case of influenza.

The common cold, flu, or influenza – whatever one may call it – is not just a simple disease. It has the ability to transform its genetic material to cause even more deadly responses in the human body. Interventions by doctors and researchers – time and again – have failed to yield progressive results in the development of proper vaccines against the flu. Now, its potential to cause fatalities has increased. Why? Because this virus has been exposed to a variety of new drugs – in different individuals with variable immune responses – located all over the globe, making it resistant to a multi-faceted drug concoction.

What we need, right now, is thorough research and establishment of a vaccine to combat at least one virus – influenza – that drives millions to their death each year.

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