Maui Time

University of Hawaii researcher says global pandemics could cause more damage than previously thought

Everyone got their flu shot, right? Right?! I’m kidding, of course, though if everyone did get this seasons flu shot–just 30 percent effective–it would likely only make things marginally better. At least 84 children have died nationwide from influenza since the fall of 2017, according to this Feb. 20 Chicago Tribune story. What’s more, on Feb. 10 Fortune reported that the flu this season “is killing up to 4,000 Americans a week.”

This is bad, but it’s not a pandemic, which according to new research spearheaded by University of Hawaii at Manoa Assistant Professor Victoria Fan, will likely hit even harder than scientists first estimated.

Fan is the lead author (along with Lawrence Summers, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury and former President of Harvard University and Dean T. Jamison, Emeritus Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington at Seattle) of a new paper titled “Pandemic Risk: How large are expected losses,” published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.

Here’s the paper’s abstract, which should drive home exactly how bad things can (will?) get:

There is an unmet need for greater investment in preparedness against major epidemics and pandemics. The arguments in favour of such investment have been largely based on estimates of the losses in national incomes that might occur as the result of a major epidemic or pandemic. Recently, we extended the estimate to include the valuation of the lives lost as a result of pandemic-related increases in mortality. This produced markedly higher estimates of the full value of loss that might occur as the result of a future pandemic. We parametrized an exceedance probability function for a global influenza pandemic and estimated that the expected number of influenza-pandemic-related deaths is about 720,000 per year. We calculated that the expected annual losses from pandemic risk to be about 500 billion United States dollars–or 0.6% of global income–per year. This estimate falls within–but towards the lower end of–the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimates of the value of the losses from global warming, which range from 0.2% to 2% of global income. The estimated percentage of annual national income represented by the expected value of losses varied by country income grouping: from a little over 0.3% in high-income countries to 1.6% in lower-middle-income countries. Most of the losses from influenza pandemics come from rare, severe events.

That certainly sounds dire, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing we can do.

“Policymakers may be able to estimate the economic losses that come with rare but potentially devastating events,” said Fan in a Jan. 31 UH Manoa news release. “We hope this can lead to more appropriate adjustments for national policies and investments, and international collaborations on pandemic preparedness.”

Click here to read the paper.

Photo of Victoria Fan courtesy UH Manoa