Insight

Influenza’s Accomplice: Complacency

“Just the Flu” needs a rebrand- influenza is a serious disease that claims upwards of 600,000 lives every year with relative impunity. Read how complacency has become influenza’s greatest accomplice.

Depiction of people in close contact

The novel coronavirus that has seized the world’s attention has a long way to go to rival the destructiveness of too-familiar influenza. Year after year, flu claims 300,000 to 600,000 lives with relative impunity.  So far this season— which may not yet have reached its peak — CDC estimates that influenza has caused 22 million illnesses in the U.S., resulting in more than 12,000 deaths, yet flu is far from the front pages.

Complacency on many levels acts as influenza’s accomplice, enabling its routine lethality and potentially hastening its transformation into a devastating pandemic. Sadly, we’re so used to flu that the term has become generic.  “Flu” in common parlance often encompasses milder illnesses such as bad colds or gastroenteritis that are caused by pathogens other than influenza. Some public health officials have suggested (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that flu should be re-branded to reflect just how scary it is.

Despite the recommendation that nearly everyone above 6 months get an annual flu shot, fewer than half of all adults and less than two thirds of children in the U.S. did so last season and one third of adults don’t plan to this season; vaccine uptake is similarly low in the EU. While the inconvenience of getting vaccinated every year presents a barrier to coverage, so does the widespread misbelief that influenza is not dangerous (or that it at least poses less risk than the vaccine). Meanwhile, the lack of a quick, reliable, cost-effective diagnostic test impedes detection of influenza outbreaks and delays life-saving treatment for people infected by the virus.

Another form of complacency rests within industry and the regulatory bodies responsible for advancing new products to the public. Despite the flurry of funding and quick action that target vaccines upon the arrival of a newly emerging infectious disease outbreak, there is a lack of sustained energy and urgency in accelerating efforts to transform protection against influenza. The current availability of a safe, but only partially effective influenza vaccine has hindered investments and created outsized regulatory hurdles for new technologies and approaches that might lead to better vaccines.

By far the greatest risk posed by influenza—and to which complacency blinds us—is its ability to spark pandemic disease.  This ignorance stems in part from the success of public health measures that have limited the impact of recent outbreaks, such as the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. Disasters averted fail to provoke fear, but experts warn that influenza remains poised to inflict global devastation.  It is almost too terrifying to imagine what havoc a virus as virulent as the 1918-19 strain, which killed an estimated 50 million people, would unleash in a far more populated, interconnected world—but we must imagine such a disaster in order to embrace the goal of protecting the world from influenza.

Like the virus itself, complacency about influenza is a worldwide problem that only inspiration and galvanized commitments can conquer. We need to take action now at a global scale to create a universal influenza vaccine that can protect humanity from emergent strains with pandemic potential and reduce the burden of seasonal flu. Read our bold recommendations for accelerating the development of a universal influenza vaccine, and be inspired to challenge the status quo!