Battling Influenza | Daily News

Battling Influenza

War, famine and pestilence. These are the three deadly phenomena that can wipe out the human race, as depicted in many religious texts and scholarly books. But one can still say that war and famine are basically man-made and well within our control. We may be the most dominant species on the planet, but we are powerless against microscopic organisms that can bring about the third phenomenon. Yes, a global pandemic caused by a virulent pathogen, as depicted in the movies, is not fiction at all. It has happened in the past and could happen again.

Exactly 100 years ago, the world faced exactly such a threat. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more people than World War I (which itself ended that year), at somewhere between 40-50 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in 1918 than in four-years of the “Black Death” Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster. Even during those very early days of air travel, the pandemic rapidly spread around the world, infecting 500 million people or one fifth of the then world population. More recently, the 2009 swine flu pandemic rose out of Mexico and showed up in Texas and California and then went around the world infecting 24 per cent of the global population.

Today, more than ever, it is very easy for viral diseases to spread rapidly. The entire world has become a village – even the two remotest corners of the world are less than 24 hours away by air. Even Antarctica, where more than 5,000 people live now, is not remote enough. This is why we have to be on guard against influenza and other communicable diseases 24/7.

Sri Lanka does have one of the best health services in the world, paid or free, but sometimes even the best safeguards and doctors cannot prevent the spread of some diseases. The influenza spreading in the Southern Province is a case in point. It has already claimed several lives, even as doctors are scrambling to find the cause of the epidemic and a cure. It is essential to isolate the pathogen within the Southern Province and prevent its further spread in the province and elsewhere.

It is in this context that President Maithripala Sirisena visited the Health Ministry on Monday evening and inquired about the measures taken to contain the influenza spreading in the Southern Province. The President has also inquired about the programme being implemented by the Ministry to provide treatment to the affected. He instructed the officials concerned to strengthen the mechanism for the containment of this influenza without making funds an issue. The President has told officials that medicine and implements can be purchased directly during an emergency situation without following the normal, somewhat lengthy tender procedure if there is a shortage. The President deserves plaudits for his timely intervention.

Whilst trying to contain the spread of this influenza strain in the Southern Province, we must be mindful of the ongoing Nipah Virus (NiV) outbreak in neighbouring India, more specifically in Kerala, which has much the same geographical and climatic features as those found in Sri Lanka. At last 14 fatalities have been reported so far. Kerala’s capital Thiruvanthapuram and Colombo are just 45 minutes away from each other by air and there are daily flights that take travellers to and fro. The authorities must ensure that passengers arriving on these flights are screened for any sign of fever. Sri Lanka has just received from Japan advanced thermal scanners that can remotely detect individuals running a temperature and they should be deployed at the Bandaranaike International Airport without delay, if not already operational. Moreover, Ebola has raised its ugly head again in Africa, specifically in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where 25 people have died from the disease. While not as contagious as influenza, Ebola can spread really fast - it killed 11,000 patients in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from 2014 to 2016. Although the two-way traffic between these countries and Sri Lanka is minimal, we should be on guard.

Since there really is no cure per se for vital diseases, prevention is the best choice. And an all-encompassing vaccine is the best hope. But the existence and evolution of many different strains of the influenza virus has made it difficult to engineer a single vaccine so far. The good news is that Phase 2 human clinical trials of a “universal” influenza vaccine are just starting in the United States. The experimental vaccine has been designed to offer protection from both current and emerging strains of the influenza virus, even the natural virus mutations that render the normal flu vaccines ineffective. We hope that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and rich countries will step in to make any such vaccine available to all developing countries at affordable rates. The world must necessarily come together to banish the deadly viral diseases and save precious lives. 


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