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Control spread of flu to avoid outbreak

In Focus

India had witnessed outbreak of flu pandemic periodically, the latest one being the 2009 Swine Flu, which claimed over 1,000 lives. The highest number of flu-related pneumonia deaths among children below the age of five years is also reported from India with more than 3.7 lakh deaths during 2006-08.

According to a joint study conducted by the University of Edinburgh and researchers from 14 countries, an estimated 90 million children under the age of five are affected by seasonal flu every year across countries.

The highest deaths due to epidemic influenza occurred between 1918 and 1920, when more than a quarter of the world’s population was affected by the epidemic, killing 50 to 100 million people.

If such an outbreak occurs today, most of the countries would find it difficult to ramp up on time demand for drugs or vaccines to treat flu, since influenza is never on the radar of the public health policy planners and administrators.

In such a situation, non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) would be critical in minimising the spread of infection, say Richard Larson and Stan Finkelstein, members of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD). Larson and Finkelstein have been studying influenza for the past five years, focusing on non-medicinal ways to prevent the disease from spreading.

Larson and Finkelstein and their colleagues found steps such as proper hand washing, wearing masks and strategically controlling temperature, humidity and air circulation to help reduce the chances of flu spreading from a sick person. Though their recommendations focus on pandemic flu, the strategies could also prevent the spread of regular seasonal flu, which kills a large number of people.

Since flu virus spreads through coughs, sneezes, talks or breathes of infected person, researchers recommend the following steps to prevent transmission.

  • Washing hands thoroughly after leaving a patient’s room
  • Wearing a mask
  • Installing air filters – high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can remove nearly 98 percent of virus particles
  • Controlling temperature and humidity – higher temperatures and humidity levels can kill or disable viruses
  • Installing an ultraviolet light- UV light is antimicrobial

“Nothing we’re proposing is controversial”, says Larson. “Our contribution is systemically going through the decades of scientific literature and picking out what we thought were exemplary pieces of work and putting them in an engineering-system framework.”

Larson and Finkelstein say, the rate of flu spread can be reduced both by minimizing the number of contacts a sick person has and by taking the steps outlined in their research paper.

“It’s not going to reduce the risk to zero and do we scientifically know what percentage the risk is reduced by this? No. But we feel confident that it’s significant, if the majority of these steps are taken,” Larson says.

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