During the Ebola outbreak, a disruptive panic enveloped the United States when two nurses were inadvertently infected while caring for a patient in Texas. As misplaced fears of Ebola spreading across the country became contagious themselves, I often reminded people that there definitely was a virus that would spread across the nation and — without any doubt — kill thousands over the next several months. This virus didn’t have an exotic name derived from a remote African river or forest, but was a microbe that everyone has experience with: flu.
What’s the risk?
Influenza, the virus that causes flu, is prolific, constantly surprising, pandemic causing, and massively disruptive in even the best of seasons. During pandemics, the virus can be catastrophic. These statements are all non-controversial to the infectious disease physician or microbiologist, but it often surprises the public.
This underestimation of influenza by the public is not benign as it engenders people to decline flu vaccination; underestimate the severity of cases of flu in themselves, friends and family; and delay medical care that could prevent some of the dangerous complications of this infection which include pneumonia, respiratory failure, miscarriage, and death.
Why the incongruity?
The idiom “better the devil you know” explains part of the blasé attitude. Flu, by its very nature, is with us every year, coming and going with regularity. Its cardinal signs and symptoms are familiar, predictable, and muddled together with all the other respiratory viruses that also circulate amongst us. Severe cases tend to cluster in the very young and very old and a large segment of the people assume it is not a problem they should give much thought to as simple cases seem to ebb and flow without impacting them too severely.
A walk through any hospital’s ICU in the height of flu season would likely be surprising to many. This wrong and biased attitude was reinforced with the last flu pandemic in 2009, in which the overall severity was initially overestimated, though the virus, which originated in swine, killed young adults and pregnant women at an alarming rate.
While Zika, Ebola, and a host of other emerging viruses may captivate the imagination with their alluring names and their nebulous emergences, influenza has been there, done that, and will continue to menace our species at an alarming rate for the foreseeable future. Eternal vigilance, preparation, and situational awareness is what is required to keep this killer virus at bay.