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Quick, what was the most deadly year in the 20th century? No, it wasnt 1943 or 1944 or 1917, or any other year with a major conflict. It wasnt caused by bombs or bullets either. The most deadly year in the 20th century was the period from September 1918 to September 1919. In that time frame, almost 40 million people died from the Spanish flu pandemic that swept the world.
The devastation it caused was profound. In many communities, most businesses were closed, public gatherings restricted and the health care system decimated due to illness and overload. People wore gauze masks in public in a vain attempt to avoid falling victim to the invisible killer. The death caused by this pathogen, an H1 strain of Influenza, was especially gruesome. It was nicknamed the purple death in some locales, in reference to the bluish-purple pallor taken on by victims, perishing from lack of oxygen as their lungs filled with blood and other bodily fluids.
In fact, the flu was responsible for more deaths in the 20th century than all the wars combined. This, in a century when wars had elevated killing to a fine art by applying the best new technology man could devise. Influenza, commonly called the flu, tends to be minimized as a minor illness by most. Actually, the flu kills an average of 36,000 people each year in the United States alone. Some years see a rather dramatic increase. In the 1998-1999 flu season (December March), 64,684 U.S. deaths were attributed to the flu, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Traditional Influenza is most lethal to older victims or those with a previous illness. In those patients older than 85, the flu is an astounding 16 times as deadly as it is to those in younger age groups. A traditional flu prevention strategy, and one recommended by most health officials, is annual vaccination for those in high risk groups.
Flu vaccines are created by a sophisticated guessing method. Health care officials examine world wide trends to try and determine what strains of the flu will cause the most damage the following flu season. They then target the flu vaccine toward those strains. They have a fairly remarkable record for accuracy in this regard.
There are two types of flu vaccine, active and inactive. The active variety actually contains live Influenza virus and is typically administered as a nasal spray. The trade name for this vaccine is FluMist. However, most vaccines are of the inactive variety, and are administered as intramuscular injections into the quadriceps muscle of the upper leg or the deltoid muscle in the shoulder. The standard vaccines for those over 18 years of age are: Fluarix from Glaxo Smith Klein Inc., Fluvirin from Chiron Corp., and Fluzone by Sanofi Pastuer Inc.
According to many health officials throughout the world, there is a very high probability that the flu we really have to be concerned about is the H5N1 strain of avian Influenza that was first reported in Hong Kong in 1997. Known as the Bird Flu, it has been detected in birds throughout the world. To stop the spread of this flu strain, over 100 million birds have been ordered destroyed by health authorities in the last year in South East Asia alone! It is now being detected in birds in Europe as well.
Apart from the economic concerns caused by the impact to the poultry industry, why be concerned about a flu strain that kills birds? Well, this strain of Influenza also kills people. In fact, it is especially deadly. Of the 125 cases of this disease reported to the World Health Organization through 09 November, 2005, 64 have been fatal. This correlates to a staggering 52% mortality rate. As a comparison, the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 had a death rate of less than 10% of those afflicted. In its current form the virus cannot even be spread by human to human contact.
Scientists are concerned, however, the H5N1 strain could mutate into a slightly different form that would allow human to human transmission. Such a mutation would trigger a pandemic. According to the WHO, a pandemic is created when a disease new to the population emerges and infects humans, causing serious illness and/or death. It also must spread easily and sustainably through human to human contact.
If such a pandemic were to occur, as a majority of scientists and health authorities fear, it would cause incalculable devastation. Some estimates place the world wide death toll from such a pandemic at over 100 million people, although estimates vary wildly. It is hoped 100 million is a worst case scenario. The key is to prepare for as many eventualities as possible.
The pandemic is most likely not a question of if, but when. Be ready for it. It would be far better to over prepare than under prepare.
See Fighting the Bird Flu Pandemic for what you can do to survive the bird flu pandemic killer.