This year’s flu season is likely to be the worst in 15 years. Colorado in particular has been hit hard, with more than 2,000 people hospitalized statewide – three times the usual rate. Nationwide, influenza has claimed the lives of more than 30 children (a number that may be underestimated by as much as half). Baby boomers are also among the most at risk for complications and death.

Although the data shows that hospitalizations across Colorado have been declining since December, we’re not out of the woods yet. And the challenges of a tough flu season point to a potentially greater problem down the road: If a universal flu pandemic strikes, will our hospitals be equipped to handle it?

A grim prognosis

In a recent New York Times op-ed, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy raised serious concerns about our nation’s ability to address a flu pandemic – something he argues will inevitably happen in the coming years. Flu vaccines are based largely on educated guesswork. This year’s iterations, for example, are only an estimated 10 to 20 percent effective. Given that they currently take five to six months to develop, absent a long-term, broad-spectrum vaccine, vaccinations likely won’t be enough to prevent a pandemic.

An outbreak on the scale of the 1918 Spanish influenza – which claimed 50 to 100 million lives – would likely be even more deadly today. Globalization and international travel would make it easier for the illness to rapidly spread worldwide. And since many pharmaceuticals are manufactured in Asia, an influenza outbreak could severely disrupt drug manufacturing and distribution, leaving U.S. hospitals cut off from life-saving treatments.

Many Colorado hospitals have already seen first-hand the difficulties of providing quality care while flooded with flu patients. If a deadly pandemic were to catch them by surprise, it might be too late to stem the tide of deaths.

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