The flu season has got off to an alarming start. The number of hospitalizations due to influenza has reached its highest level in the last ten years, and the number of cases is rising across the country. Meanwhile, vaccination rates have fallen well below historical trends. This and a rise in other respiratory viruses have contributed to what some call a pediatric care crisis in many parts of the country.
Thankfully, some members of Congress are taking long overdue measures to improve the way our country prepares for and responds to seasonal and pandemic flu.
Public health experts typically look in the southern hemisphere for a signal of what the American flu season will bring. Last summer, the Australian season was both early and intense: Between May and July, weekly flu cases exceeded the country’s five-year average, and sick leave rose by 50 percent. Young children were at greatest risk, with the highest case rates among children aged five to nine years, followed by children aged four years and younger.
Unfortunately, we are seeing the same patterns in the USA. Official estimates show that there were at least 15 million illnesses, 150,000 hospitalizations and 9,300 flu deaths in the first months of the 2022/23 flu season. Tragically, this includes 30 child deaths.
Worryingly, this is happening against the backdrop of what may be the worst avian flu outbreak in the world. The current strain, which has devastated some wild bird species and led to the death of more than 50 million poultry species in the USA, which is a new record, is poorly adapted to humans, but that could quickly change if the virus mutates.
Experts remain concerned that the next pandemic will be a flu pandemic, similar to the pandemic that has hit the globe several times over the last century. Unfortunately, despite the experience with COVID-19, our country has made little progress in preparing for the next inevitable outbreak.
More can and must be done. This month, Representatives Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Deborah Ross (D-N.C.), Ami Bera (D-Calif.), Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.-At-Large) presented the Protecting America from Seasonal and Pandemic Influenza Act of 2022 (“The Influenza Act”) provide many of the tools needed to strengthen the country’s flu infrastructure and provide the prevention, diagnosis, and cutting-edge treatment needed to save lives.
The federal government plays a crucial role both in preparing for and fighting seasonal and pandemic influenza. This includes monitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outreach and support to state, local, territorial, and indigenous agencies, and the work of the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR) to support research and development and build up pandemic preparedness inventories. More must be done to strengthen these programs and ensure that we invest proactively in our fight against this deadly disease.
Getting the flu shot remains the best way to prevent hospitalizations and deaths. The influenza bill would take steps to combat misinformation and increase trust in vaccines while evaluating lessons learned from COVID-19. And while we encourage Americans to get vaccinated, we also need to strengthen our vaccine development and manufacturing to improve flu vaccine effectiveness, supply chain, and delivery schedule. The influenza bill would take important steps to achieve these goals, including setting the national goal of developing a universal flu vaccine within 10 years.
In addition to prevention, we must encourage Americans to diagnose the earliest signs of a flu infection and ensure access to antiviral treatments. Programs such as the “Test to Treat” pilot projects, which were introduced as part of our COVID response, are also suitable for use against influenza. They enable immediate differential diagnosis followed by safe and effective treatments that are used at the point of care. Quick, convenient testing and treatment could both slow the spread in the community and reduce the severity of the disease.
The flu law also includes important provisions to strengthen pandemic preparedness, including strengthening the national strategic stockpile. As stated in the White House’s latest progress report on the American pandemic preparedness plan, we should regard seasonal flu as an important pandemic preparedness measure.
Finally, the Influenza Act takes important steps to address the long-standing underfunding of flu programs by approving sustainable annual funding.
For too long, our country has accepted the status quo of tens of thousands of deaths from the flu every year. The phrase “just the flu,” which has been repeated far too often in the last three years, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of this deadly virus. We have everything we need to address this dangerous threat more effectively: science, technology, and hard-won preparedness insights over the last three years.
Congress must take action to strengthen the federal government’s ability to protect our communities from seasonal and pandemic influenza.
Former Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) is chairman of the Coalition to Stop Flu.