TTUHSC Pandemic Flu Preparedness
What's a "Pan Flu"?
It is a new strain of influenza caused by a virus that is spread very quickly all over the world from one person to another person. There's either very little or no immunity to the virus, and no immediate vaccine is available. That's why pandemics are considered overwhelming events because it happens so quickly, it affects so many people and very little is available to immediately respond to it. The virus causes a very large number of people to be seriously ill, and there will be many deaths. What is most important is to know that pandemics are very serious events! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses these definitions:
- Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
- Avian (or bird) flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. The current H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is currently available.
- Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person. Currently, there is no pandemic flu.
Is pandemic flu different than seasonal flu?
Yes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines seasonal flu as 'a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available. Some of the differences between a pandemic flu and seasonal flu are that not as many people are infected with seasonal flu, people can generally be treated early with vaccines for seasonal flu and the ability of communities to respond to seasonal flu much easier than it will be to respond to a pandemic flu.
What is avian flu, and is it the same as pandemic flu?
No, avian flu is not the same as pandemic flu. Avian flu is caused by an influenza virus that naturally occurs between wild birds. The latest avian flu virus is receiving a lot of attention among scientists and public health officials because it has killed domestic birds like chickens and has been transmitted from birds to humans. This virus has been labeled H5N1 and you may have read about it. At the moment, the H5N1 virus has not been transmitted from an infected person to another person. There is no human immunity to the virus, but a vaccine has been developed. However, experts believe this particular virus could change very quickly. But the current vaccine may not be effective if the virus changes and spreads to humans.
There are several kinds of flu viruses and the world's medical communities work hard to stay ahead of them. What makes up most viruses doesn't change year to year or changes very slowly. This offers medical experts the time needed to stay ahead of viruses and develop vaccines. But that doesn't mean a virus can't change faster than vaccines and immunizations can keep up and a pandemic is possible if a virus with no known vaccine spreads quickly between people. How severe that pandemic is depends on several important things including how well people and communities have prepared ahead of time.
Just how bad can a pandemic be?
Three major pandemics happened during the last century. The 1918 "Spanish Flu" infected at least half of the world's entire population, killing over 53 million people. The flu spread across the United States in less than one month. Over 675,000 people died in the United States in that month and during the following 6 months. That's nearly 100,000 deaths a month! The federal government's website dedicated to pandemic flu preparation provides a historical overview of the 1918 pandemic stating, "Some people who felt well in the morning became sick by noon, and were dead by nightfall." We recommend you take a few minutes and view the presentation The Great Pandemic at this link or from the link on the front page of this website.
The second pandemic in the United States was 1957. It is referred to as the "Asian Flu" because it was identified first in the Far East. Although it was identified early, vaccines were very limited. The virus then spread very quickly across the United States when children returned to school after the summer break. They spread the virus in their classrooms and then took it home to their families. As months went by, it seemed as if the infections were going away until early in 1958 when a second wave heavily infected the elderly. Nearly 70,000 people in the United States died when the pandemic flu ended.
What are the chances of another pandemic flu?
History shows that pandemics have occurred in the last 4 centuries. Experts today are certain another pandemic will happen, but they don't know exactly when. But, considering that a pandemic will start very quickly and spread very quickly, official expect that a severe pandemic will cause over 1.8 million deaths in the United States alone! Even a mild pandemic is estimated to result in at least 90,000 deaths.
As Ed Marcuse, former Chair, US National Vaccine Advisory Committee said:
"The Pandemic Influenza clock is ticking; we just don't know what time it is."