Science Policy Now + Beyond Inequality

How the flu became another deadly cost of leaving Puerto Rico unaided after hurricane Maria

Flu season is finally over. No more sniffling friends, vaccinations or mountains of tissues. We can all breathe again, literally.

But the 2018 flu season was a terrifying one and brought up a lot of memories of the flu pandemic of 1918 where millions of people around the world died from influenza. The CDC reported 24 children dead in the first three weeks of January and then a total of 37 deaths by the end of flu season. While this may seem small in numbers compared to the actual medical epidemic of 1918, the tolls were still extremely large considering the fact that since that event society has managed to keep the influenza virus virtually contained.

What made this season even scarier and possibly aided in the death toll was the severe shortage of IVs.  Intravenous re-hydration (IV re-hydration) is a common and important treatment for flu patients and it’s been a large factor in preventing flu-related deaths in the past few decades. When your body contracts the flu virus you become extremely dehydrated and fluids are the key to boosting your immune system to fight the virus off. Our body is primarily made of water and that water is what keeps our immune system healthy and allows it to kill off harmful substances in our bodies.

This is why when you’re sick with pretty much anything, the first advice your doctor may give you is to drink a ton of fluids like water and drinks with restorative electrolytes, along with getting lots of rest.

Those who get extremely sick from the flu need something a little bit stronger than just orally consumable liquids. So they receive IV re-hydration to restore those fluids and crucial immune system boosting vitamins directly to their veins to avoid the detrimental effects of extreme dehydration, or rather, death. With such a large outbreak of influenza this year, hospitals were in huge demand of IV bags in order to treat people, but we ended up with a significant shortage according to USA today and the cause of this shortage was hurricane Maria.

Baxter pharmaceuticals are one of the largest companies that produce IVs for the United States and their main factories that supply these IVs are located in Puerto Rico. According to NPR Puerto Rico produces about 40 billion dollars worth of pharmaceuticals for the U.S. which is more than any other state or U.S. territory.

However, Puerto Rico has been without power and supplies for months after the devastation of hurricane Maria and is in severe need of aid. That aid from the U.S was lacking, to say the least, and without resources, the power to run the factories, and workers who were now homeless and hungry, shipments of IVs were extremely hard to come by.

Puerto Rico is still fighting for aid and just recently Trump has decided to cease aid supplies to the island. Even though FEMA has provided almost $50 million worth of aid to go to power line reconstruction and unemployment assistance, Puerto Rico still faces a ton of devastation. This is extremely problematic when you consider the amount of money this island provides to the U.S.

It seems that the blood of those that died flu season is on America’s hands.

We have let Puerto Rico suffer for decades while we continue to suck the island dry for all its resources and deny them rights and a say to what happens in America and on their own island. It seems our comeuppance has finally arrived and it has been deadly. Without continued help, Puerto Rico could still be in trouble come next flu season which could mean even more deaths both on the island and in the U.S.

This should not be our motivation for helping Puerto Rico because it is our responsibility to help them as an American territory, but it should catalyst that motivation and force us to ensure the success and upkeep of the island.

Trump may be ending aid, but there’s still a lot you can do to help. Continue to spread the word so that we don’t forget about this tragedy the way we forget about many others and donate to relief efforts that directly go to helping out. Together, we can help save thousands of lives because, at the end of the day, Puerto Rican citizens are our citizens and their livelihood and safety matters just as much as ours.

By Tiara Jenkins

Graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelors in biological anthropology, a medical anthropology certification and a minor in communication studies. She is a proud womanist who's passionate about equal representation for black women in...everything, especially nerd culture.