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15 Years of Public Health Cuts Have Made This Flu Season Way Worse

We are woefully underprepared.

SCIENCE AF STAFF
24 JAN 2018
 

Ask anyone, and they will tell you this flu season has been a doozy.

Across the US, hospitals are overrun and emergency department staff are working double shifts, prompting some areas to declare a state of emergency.

 

Still, despite all the hullabaloo, the crisis is similar in severity to the 2014-2015 epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So why is this flu season taking such a toll?

According to an expert: decades of neglect.

"Each year, the healthcare system gets a thinner and thinner veneer of preparedness," said Mike Osterholm, director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"It takes less and less impact for a healthcare system to go from routine to crisis."

The crisis has stemmed from more than 15 years of public health budget cuts, which have left schools and hospitals woefully underprepared for dealing with pandemics, biological attacks and other health emergencies, Osterholm says.

"If what is happening today had happened 15 to 20 years ago, it would not be much of a blip in terms of interruption, but today it is," he said.

For years, infectious disease experts have been telling the US government to step up and prepare for future flu epidemics - the chances of which are almost certain, according to influenza specialists.

 

In order to respond quickly and efficiently to flu epidemics, US hospitals and schools need to be better prepared - but a lack of government funding makes this particularly challenging.

Last year's budget provided just $57 million for influenza pandemic planning. In the same year, the state of Hawaii had to scale back their flu shot program due to a lack of funding.

The problem is certainly not helped when this year's flu vaccine is only 10 percent effective. Given the fact that modern flu vaccines are based on 1940's research, Osterholm argues we need more funding to make these vaccines way more effective.

But even though the National Institute of Health has prioritised vaccine development, in 2017 it only dedicated $32 million to the cause. In the same year, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority only put aside $43 million.

To put these numbers into perspective, the search for an HIV vaccine receives $1 billion annually.

"I think it is in part a sense that until it's a downright crisis, everybody assumes everything is OK," Osterholm said.

Until there are plans to increase government funding for public health, Osterholm says the dismal response to flu season will only get worse.