10-Year Anniversary of the Influenza A

As we end 2019, one of the things we may have forgotten about was that 2019 was the 10-year anniversary of the influenza A (H1N1)pdm09 virus pandemic.

It doesn’t sound very exciting to look back upon, but in reality, its history is a valuable lesson.

In the spring of 2009, a new influenza virus was detected in the United States. It had a unique combination of genes not previously seen in any animals or people. Younger people – children through middle-age adults - did not have an existing immunity to it and those over 60 had some antibodies from a similar virus that they may have contracted earlier in their lives. But no one was truly immune.

At the time, there was plenty of talk about the possible pandemic in the news, and hospitals across the country were working behind the scenes with local emergency management agencies and others to prepare. If the flu would spread, it was predicted that it would be similar to a pandemic last seen in 1918 that killed 1-3 percent of the world’s population.

“I recall having the meetings,” Dr. Russell Cameron, Chief Medical Officer for Penn Highlands Healthcare, said. “We worked through what was predicted to happen if there was a pandemic - and how we would respond. Other than the obvious talk about sick patients, there was lots of discussion about how the hospital staff would be affected - if a certain percentage would be sick, how could we try to cover? We spoke about supplies that would be needed, including ventilators for patients with pulmonary complications. Would we have enough? Would our vendors give their excess ones to larger hospitals?”

“I think more surprising to me was the potential impact on the world outside the hospital,” he said. “Society’s infrastructure would quickly crumble when a certain percentage of folks would get sick. Basic services like utilities would be affected because of lack of support. Transportation would be affected, including deliveries by trucks. Grocery stores may need to close due to lack of employees, etc.”

As the timeline progressed, by June 25, 1 million people had this flu in the U.S. The flu also spread to other parts of the world, which raised its worldwide-pandemic level by the World Health Organization.

But there was hope. On July 22, clinical trials for a vaccine began. By mid-September four vaccines were approved, and the first dose was given on Oct. 5, 2009.

“My remembrance was that the medical community felt a vaccine would be out eventually, and I think there was a lot of trust that this would occur in time,” Cameron said.

And the medical community was right. The vaccine was used as fast as it could be manufactured. People of high-risk were vaccinated first, and eventually, all those who could and wanted to be vaccinated were.

This vaccine saved many lives in comparison to previous pandemics. It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 0.001- 0.007 percent of the world’s population died of respiratory complications associated with the influenza A (H1N1)pdm09 virus infection during the first 12 months the virus circulated.

Though this is an interesting history lesson, this is also a very serious health lesson about vaccinations.

“By being vaccinated, lives were saved,” Megan Bussard, PharmD, Director of Value Based Healthcare Operations at Penn Highlands Healthcare, said. “The world averted a pandemic in the proportions that it has seen in the past.”
“At Penn Highlands, we remind all of our patients and parents of patients to please keep on schedule for vaccines. Though we like to think most diseases no longer exist – they do,” she said.

“Recommendations for vaccines should be followed - especially when we have close contact with individuals who have weakened immune systems - children, the elderly and those who are immunosuppressed because of medications. Unfortunately, there has been a recent movement of anti-vaccination habits across the United States,” Bussard said. “While there have always been oppositions to immunizations, a recent surge has caused once irradiated viruses to resurface. Multiple measle outbreaks in the United States have been a direct reflection of this movement as measles were considered eliminated previously. In order to keep ourselves and the loved ones around us safe, be sure to talk to your doctor about your immunizations and make sure you are up-to-date with all recommended shots.”

If you do not have a primary care provider, go to the Penn Highlands webpage www.phhealthcare.org/findadoc to see a list of all providers on medical staff.