Global health officials fear Europe is on the verge of a flu outbreak like the “Spanish flu” that began killing millions of people in 1918, when millions more became sick and many more died of other flu-related causes, as World War I raged.
Much like what happened in 1918, this year’s flu pandemic could strike anywhere from New York to Los Angeles, including the wealthy, Caucasian-dominated southern European nations that hope to avoid the epicenter of the pandemic.
While most of the world’s population is at risk, southern Europe, including Spain, Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, and others, is again bracing for an outbreak after last year’s devastating flu season that sent thousands to the hospital.
The World Health Organization has been warning that the next pandemic could hit Europe. European governments for some reason have been resistant to attempting a mass vaccination campaign.
Instead of being embarrassed that thousands of people were getting flu shots, as has occurred in the United States, the pan-European healthcare and pharmaceutical sector has been supporting a mandatory vaccine campaign for this year in the hopes that it will bolster foreign trade with a pre-pandemic flu panic.
“The European strategy to combat the winter flu is a compulsory vaccination strategy,” Joerg Albrecht, head of Germany’s Seleucus medical federation said. “It’s hoped that these vaccine campaigns will help protect the EU’s Gross Domestic Product.”
The threat, which was highlighted by the death of a Spanish pediatrician this week, has caused the WHO to sound the alarm, too.
“The health situation is dire,” said Dr. David Heymann, a spokesman for the WHO. “There is widespread disease and death.”
In the last five days, the WHO has confirmed three deaths from the flu — a 55-year-old Romanian man, a 68-year-old Spanish man and a 49-year-old man from Slovenia — in Spain and Italy, in Italy. It’s expected to confirm a fourth death in France this week.
Of the thousands of suspected flu-related cases in Europe, it is expected to confirm more than 1,000 by the end of the week.
Ana Font, a spokesman for the French health ministry, told The Washington Post the government is hesitant to launch a mandatory flu vaccination campaign even if hospitals want to take a stance. Instead, it’s launching a voluntary vaccination campaign now.
However, Spanish officials decided in 2015 to force all citizens of the region of Andalusia to get the flu shot, to mitigate cases that still flocked the province, and they’re expected to get many residents vaccinated now.
And they’re not the only ones to do so. Lithuania and Switzerland announced last year that they would have mandatory vaccination campaigns, with some local pharmacies even charging their customers to get their flu shots, according to WHO.
Local governments decided to push flu shots after the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, when the disease infected hundreds of thousands and killed thousands. And the agency also warns that Britain is not immune from a pandemic.
A massive global outbreak would be an enormous economic loss to the United States, experts say.
According to the Committee for Economic Development, a report from the Yale School of Management released in 2015, a flu pandemic would cause roughly a $400 billion negative impact on the global economy.
“The key risk is that the pandemic will be in the South Asia region,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases researcher and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
He said that even though the United States is richer than any other country, the more than 300 million people within a hundred miles of its shores would be under threat.
He said there are various U.S. military options for confronting a flu pandemic, ranging from an air assault on China to the use of nuclear weapons.
“We have to do what we can to protect our people from the flu,” he said.