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Influenza pandemics are global outbreaks that result from new variations of the influenza virus emerging in global populations. In order for this to occur, the virus must be easily passed from person to person and cause serious illness to the human body. Major pandemic outbreaks have been recorded for over one hundred years. Advancing medical knowledge has helped doctors and scientists to understand how these outbreaks occur and develop plans to prevent and treat the virus. Prior to current knowledge about influenza there was nothing that people could do to control the outbreaks. If we compare the strategies implemented during an outbreak from before modern medical developments to a more recent pandemic, evidence supports that we were better prepared to handle the 2009 H1N1 pandemic than we were to handle the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Over the course of two years during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, more than 50 million people died. The virus came in two waves, the first being much less lethal than the second. Scientists are still unable to pinpoint the specific strain of Influenza A that was infecting the population at that time so it is difficult to understand why it was so lethal. When influenza first appeared, the United States was ill equipped for a health crisis. Doctors, nurses and supplies were being sent overseas because World War I was still being fought at the time of the initial outbreak. The country was well equipped to fight over in Europe but was not prepared to battle with illness on the home front. It was up to local governments to decide how to contain the outbreaks and many communities initiated different types of containment plans. Some towns had plans in place but most did not have the resources available to follow through with them effectively. Many towns opted to close public places and force homes with infected individuals to be quarantined until they were cured. This was ineffective due to the fact that it was nearly impossible to enforce. Gauze masks were distributed and sanitation laws were put in place in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus from person to person. Scientists tried to take preventative measures by creating vaccines, however the vaccines were ineffective because they were not made with the actual virus. There was not much understanding in 1918 about how to make effective vaccines. Antiviral medications had also not yet been formulated at the time so there was not much doctors could do for a patient once he or she had become infected (Ott 803-810).
Present day outbreaks are nowhere near as lethal as those of the early 1900’s. In early 2009, a new influenza A virus (H1N1) surfaced in the human population. This virus quickly spread via direct human-human contact, resulting in a pandemic of the virus. 18,449 laboratory-confirmed deaths were recorded as a direct result of the outbreak. This is significantly less than the 50 million deaths that occurred in the 1918 influenza outbreak. Each country developed slightly different, yet effective control strategies when the outbreak struck in early 2009. Scientists were able to develop vaccines significantly quicker than ever before to target the specific strain of the virus. Countries that initiated mass vaccination as a control strategy saw significant results in the number of infections recorded. Most developed countries had strategies in place prior to initial outbreak that included special containment laws, international communication of data and mitigation measures. In addition to containment plans, a stockpile of antiviral medications had been prepared in anticipation before the outbreak even occurred. After past outbreaks, the world figured out how to be prepared and initiated preventative measures in the event that an outbreak occurred again. As a result, antivirals were delivered quickly to where they were needed, helping to stop the spread of the influenza virus. Healthcare professionals and patients in facilities were cautious in using personal protective equipment, limiting the transmission of the virus from patient to doctors and nurses. The worldwide response to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak was the fastest and most effective in history due to control strategies, stockpiling of medications, and quick development of vaccines
Influenza viruses have been troubling society internationally for many years. Since we do not understand how or why new strains of the virus develop every few decades all we can do is prepare ourselves for a new strain to come at any moment. In 1918, scientists did not know much about how to control the virus and people were generally unprepared for a pandemic to occur. The 2009 H1N1 outbreak was different because the world was well equipped to stop the virus in its tracks. Strategies were in place to treat infected patients and science was advanced enough to quickly develop preventative vaccines for those not yet infected. The world has learned from every outbreak that has occurred and will continue to prepare itself for future epidemics as best as possible.
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