While washing hands and containing coughs can reduce the spread of a severe flu outbreak, new research suggests narrowing the gap between the start of a flu pandemic and the administration of vaccinations can save lives and money.  The study, led by Dr. Nayer Khazeni from the Stanford University of Medicine in California, used a computer model based in part on the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide, including an estimated 675,000 in the U.S. The model also used traits from two bird flu viruses, H7N9 and H5N1, currently present in Asia and the Middle East.

A previous study of the 2009 H1N1 Influenza outbreak, classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization and commonly known as the “swine flu,” showed that for every four-week delay in vaccination, a significant increase in costs, deaths and infections occurred. Khazeni’s team noted in the Annals of Internal Medicine that it took nine months from when the H1N1 outbreak began to start vaccinations.
Khazeni and her researchers wanted to see how a city like New York would be impacted by an outbreak and how different response times would affect infection and death rates, as well as costs. They estimated that each infected person would likely spread the virus to two others.
Using the computer model, Khazeni’s team determined that waiting a full year between the start of a pandemic and vaccination would result in an estimated 48,250 deaths (based on when the first 30 percent of the population became vaccinated). Shortening the vaccination response time to nine months reduced the number of deaths by over 2,300 (to 45,890 people), and vaccinating people within four months of the outbreak further reduced deaths to 34,480.
If vaccinations were administered within four months instead of nine, city-wide healthcare costs would also drop by $100 million. Under the best circumstances, however, the process of creating flu vaccinations currently takes five months. Shorter production times could be achieved with new technology that doesn’t require the use of eggs to create vaccines.
Ultimately, the results of the study could help policymakers understand the conditions under which government and vaccine manufacturers should speed up production and administration.
In the interim of faster production, Khazeni’s team found that preventive measures such as washing hands and wearing face masks could be effective in controlling the spread of a virus. This finding is echoed by Dr. Mark Mulligan, executive director for the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta. Though not involved in Dr. Khazeni’s study, Mulligan told Reuters Health that ultimately, prevention is the key to containing a flu outbreak, while also acknowledging the importance of annual vaccinations and getting people vaccinated as quickly as possible during a pandemic.
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