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Computer Prediction: Only Vaccine Can Stop Flu Pandemic -- but Strategies May Buy Time

Computer Prediction: Only Vaccine Can Stop Flu Pandemic -- but Strategies May Buy Time
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Time-Honored Methods Buy Time

"Social distancing strategies can slow the epidemic to give us time for vaccinations and such, but are unlikely to completely shut off the transmission," Burke says. "After vaccination, the second most effective scenario is to target interventions to lessen person-to-person contact, whether this means isolation to homes or closing schools and workplaces. This can lower the peak number of people infected, but it doesn't mean fewer infections -- it just spreads them out a little more over time."

Even so, that would be an important thing to do. Slowing how quickly the infection spreads over time would reduce the peak surge in people desperately needing health care. It might just keep public health efforts from being overwhelmed. And it might buy precious time.

"If we are lucky, we may be able to take advantage of flu's seasonality," Burke says. "Flu is a seasonal disease. It occurs in winter everywhere. If there are some weather and climate factors that influence transmission, even if you did nothing and summer came along, the epidemic might go away for awhile. So if can we can string the epidemic along so not everyone is infected in that first winter, then summer starts to work to your advantage and you get another four to six months to get people vaccinated."

No Nation a Pandemic FluFlu Island

Inevitably, there will be calls to close the U.S. to foreign travel. But by the time we realize there's a pandemic, it's not likely this will work.

"If there were a raging epidemic somewhere else in the world, it would be extremely unlikely we could stop it from entering the U.S.," Burke says. "If we have a new epidemic strain, it almost certainly will infect everybody. Not everybody will get ill and die, but nearly everybody will transmit it. Trying to keep a disease like that outside the U.S., to keep it from entering, is extremely difficult and highly improbable."

What about closing off the first U.S. cities to report infections?

"If there were to be only one city with a flu outbreak, you might, in theory, wall it off," Burke says. "But remember, flu is likely to be implanted widely across the U.S. before it is recognized as a major pandemic. If we have continuing introductions, which is likely, the notion of walling off a particular region is, in our assessment, not a likely to be an effective strategy."

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