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Pandemic Flu

What's the Problem?

A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. A flu pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges for which people have little or no immunity, and for which there is no vaccine. The disease spreads easily person-to-person, causes serious illness, and can sweep across the country and around the world in a very short time.

Influenza pandemics occurred three times in the past century; in 1918-19, 1957-58, and 1968-69. Many scientists believe it is a matter of time until the next influenza pandemic occurs. However, the timing and severity of the next pandemic cannot be predicted.

Who's at Risk?

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An especially severe influenza pandemic could lead to high levels of illness, death, social disruption, and economic loss. This means that virtually everyone is at risk for illness and disruption in daily life since so many people in so many places become seriously ill at the same time. Impacts can range from school and business closings to the interruption of basic services such as public transportation and food delivery.

Although scientists cannot predict the specific consequences of an influenza pandemic, it is likely that many age groups would be seriously affected. The greatest risk of hospitalization and death—as seen during the last two pandemics in 1957 and 1968 and during annual influenza—will be infants, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions. However, in the 1918 pandemic, most deaths occurred in young adults. Few if any people would have immunity to the virus.

During a pandemic outbreak, a substantial percentage of the world's population will require some form of medical care. Health care facilities can be overwhelmed, creating a shortage of hospital staff, beds, ventilators and other supplies. The need for vaccine is likely to outstrip supply and the supply of antiviral drugs is also likely to be inadequate early in a pandemic. Difficult decisions will need to be made regarding who gets antiviral drugs and vaccines.

Can It Be Prevented?

The effects of a pandemic can be lessened if preparations are made ahead of time. Planning and preparation checklists are being prepared for various sectors of society, including information for individuals and families.

Individuals should also practice good health habits, including eating a balanced diet, exercising daily, and getting sufficient rest to ensure optimal health. In addition, individuals should wash hands frequently with soap and water; cover coughs and sneezes with tissues; stay away from others as much as possible when sick.

The Bottom Line

  • It is important that communities develop preparedness plans as they would for other public health emergencies. They should also implement prevention and control actions recommended by public health providers.
  • Businesses and schools should adopt practices that encourage sick employees/students to stay home and anticipate how to function with a significant portion of the workforce/school population absent due to illness or caring for ill family members.

Case Examples

  1. A number of serious flu cases present at a local hospital. The doctors are concerned these cases may be the beginning of a larger problem. The hospital staff reports the cases to the local public health department, which explores the cases more carefully. The health department also checks surveillance records for other local hospitals to determine the spread of the illness. They learn this is an isolated incident and inform the hospital staff that there is no need for alarm.
  2. In preparation for a possible pandemic, a pharmacist checks his pharmacy's Tamiflu stock. He notes that he has only a few prescriptions and decides to order more.
  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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