- Emerging threat: While the flu pandemic of 2009 was apparently mild, there is no way of knowing whether the next one will be a repeat or more closely resemble the killer disease of 1918.
- Early warning: After the 1997 avian flu scare, researchers developed pretty good surveillance programs to detect potentially deadly viruses that might jump from birds to people.
- Blindsided: The 2009 pandemic underscored the possibility that the greater threat may come from pigs, not birds, because it is typically easier for pig viruses to make the jump to people.
- Hamstrung: Economic considerations make it harder to get viral samples from pig farms in a timely manner, which frustrates health officials who want to be better prepared for the next pandemic.
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The 2009 influenza pandemic appeared to come out of nowhere. It started as what seemed like a lethal outbreak in Mexico, then spread north of the border. By the time health officials learned that the virus responsible for the alarming explosion of cases was new and an infection threat to most of humankind, they had no way to keep it from spreading around the world. By a stroke of luck, symptoms were mild in the vast majority of cases. What if next time we are not so lucky?
That question weighs heavily on the minds of influenza scientists and public health planners as they prepare for the next big outbreak. And there will be a next time. Flu viruses mutate constantly. Occasionally those changes result in viruses so different from what our immune systems have seen before that they are able to trigger global waves of disease, or pandemics. Someday there may be a vaccine that can fend off all subtypes of influenza, but such a vaccine remains a dream for now. So new viruses can and will come at us from birds or pigs or other animals. The best we can do is try to spot new invaders soon enough to get a jump on producing vaccines against those particular bugs, to shorten the time from first infections to mass immunizations. No one wants a repeat of 2009, when a vaccine arrived about the time the outbreak was peaking and public interest was waning.
This article was originally published with the title Flu Factories.