In response to this post about annual influenza (also crossposted here), I received several emails and comments that missed the whole point. I am not denigrating the importance of ‘other’ diseases. AIDS and cancer are worth curing and preventing. My point about influenza is that preventing most of the deaths can be thought of as ‘low-hanging fruit.’
Unlike AIDS or various cancers (there is no single ‘cancer’), we don’t need a medical or technological breakthrough that might or might not happen. We also don’t need behavioral modification, such as STD awareness or smoking cessation campaigns. And, while behavioral modification is worth pursuing, the number of lives saved is relatively modest compared to vaccination (it’s not like AIDS or lung cancer have gone away).
With annual influenza, all we need is more vaccine stuck into the appropriate people. There’s no new technology to develop (although cell-based culture would be an improvement). Once a person is vaccinated, there’s no behavioral modification needed. We could have an effective vaccination strategy up and running in two to five years (being a pessimist, I’ll say five). A couple of years to increase vaccine production facilities, two years to work out the distribution kinks, and year five, it works.
There are very few problems can be solved solely by throwing buckets of money at them (although buckets of money are either helpful or necessary). Annual influenza is one of those problems than can be solved simply by investing more resources. That’s why this is so frustrating: it is utterly within our power to save roughly 28,000 lives, and yet we fail to do so.
There’s a lot of things I’d like to see overhauled in our vaccination strategy. Virus identification is first, then manufacturing an effective vaccine in a timely manner. Finally, distribution. Currently that whole process takes many months so that when you get your shot, it may or may not be effective against what’s going around.
There’s lots of politics around the issue, though. Some vaccines will cause people to become ill or possibly die, so a national policy around that has to be in place. Lots of drug companies don’t like making vaccines simply because of the legal issues. Cost is also a big one.
There’s some interesting presentations from the 2007 Influenza summit. It’s a bit industry focused, but talks a lot about the issues involved with identification and distribution.