Outbreak Hits Smithsonian: An Immersive Look Inside Influenza Preparedness

In 1918, a virulent influenza strain swept across a globe already reeling from the first World War. The “Spanish Flu” pandemic killed 50 million people in a matter of months, more than double the number killed during four years of war.


A century later, the world was again reminded of influenza’s power. The 2018 flu season was one of the most severe on record, affecting 35 million people and claiming tens of thousands of lives. While only a faint echo of the 1918 pandemic, this year’s flu season was a stark reminder that the virus remains a significant, ongoing public health challenge.


To underscore that challenge, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) is marking the centennial of the Spanish Flu outbreak with a new exhibit, Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World. The exhibit examines how infectious diseases such as the flu can affect our lives thanks to their intricate connections between humans, animals and the environment.


Sponsored by Sanofi Pasteur along with other leaders in public health, “Outbreak” brings to life the complex work of government officials, medical societies and vaccine manufacturers around the world to combat the flu. Every year, thousands of experts monitor the progress of the flu, analyze prevalence and virulence of this often unpredictable virus, and work to determine the composition of the vaccine for the next season.


As part of that work, researchers hope to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding infectious diseases. Why do they emerge? How are they transmitted between animals and people? What is responsible for their rapid spread? What disease could become the next global threat?


“With Outbreak, we hope to portray the full picture of how health officials battle infectious diseases like the flu every day, from tracking disease activity in animals and humans, to developing life-saving vaccines,” said Dr. Sabrina Sholts, Lead Curator of the exhibition and Curator in the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology. “We want to shed light on how officials around the world rely on one another’s surveillance and development efforts to stay ahead of the curve in the spirit of public health preparedness.”


The exhibit also examines the importance of research and development efforts that result in the production of both seasonal and pandemic flu vaccines. Sanofi Pasteur has a legacy of researching, developing and manufacturing flu vaccines for decades as part of its mission to work toward a world in which no one suffers or dies of a vaccine-preventable disease. 


Seasonal Flu: The Importance of Protection


The flu is an easily spread virus (in fact, several related virus strains) that causes serious respiratory illness. Complications from the flu can lead to hospitalizations, and despite the availability of modern vaccines, the disease still claims thousands of lives each year. In the US alone, it is estimated that about one in five people get the flu each year and, on average, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications.


When combined with pneumonia, the flu is one of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States. For those considered high-risk, including older adults, young children and people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart and lung disease, or diabetes, getting the flu can be especially serious and can make chronic conditions worse.


In the United States, vaccination is recommended for everyone six months of age and older, with rare exception. Getting an annual flu shot is the most effective way to reduce complications. New research demonstrated that if roughly 40 percent of Americans received a flu shot, with a vaccine that is only 20 percent effective, the vaccine would still prevent 21 million infections, avoid nearly 130,000 hospitalizations and save 61,000 lives.


Visitors to the Outbreak exhibit will gain a better understanding of the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System and how it informs yearly vaccine production worldwide for all manufacturers, including Sanofi Pasteur, that produce millions of vaccine doses for each season.


“Throughout Sanofi Pasteur's legacy, we provided flu vaccines in the United States for more than 70 years. As part of our ongoing commitment to preventing disease, we have consistently brought new, innovative flu vaccines to market to meet public health needs, especially for high-risk and vulnerable populations,” said Julian Ritchey, U.S. Head of Vaccine Public Affairs at Sanofi Pasteur. “We strive each day to make ongoing advancements to protect public health worldwide and are proud to be a sponsor of the Smithsonian’s exciting and educational exhibit.”


To learn more about the exhibit, visit the NMNH site.