WHAT IS PANDEMIC INFLUENZA?

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new form of the influenza virus starts spreading. Because it is a new virus, people have no resistance to it and it therefore spreads easily from person to person worldwide.

People are also more likely to become sick in a short period of time. Previous influenza pandemics have led to widespread disease and death.

WHY SHOULD YOU PAY ATTENTION TO PANDEMIC INFLUENZA?

Pandemic influenza could start anywhere and spread quickly around the world, causing millions of deaths and severe illness. Although the worst-case scenarios predict that an estimated 2-3% of the world's population (or 160 million people) would die in a severe pandemic, the results will not be as severe if you take steps now to prepare for it.

WHO and FAO, along with donor nations, are working on scientific and technological innovations to help reduce the threat and minimize the effects of an influenza pandemic. Because of the work being done, all countries and governments are being encouraged to participate in planning and preparation activities to prevent a pandemic.

FIVE REASONS WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO PREPARE FOR AN INFLUENZA PANDEMIC NOW

  1. There will be little time to prepare once an influenza pandemic occurs. Experts have predicted that the time for final planning and preparations will be a few weeks – at most.
  2. Being prepared for a pandemic will help to reduce public panic and anxiety when an outbreak occurs.
  3. If more people are prepared for a pandemic, health workers will be better able to assist greater numbers of people, especially those who need the most help, such as the elderly and people who are already ill with diseases such as HIV, TB, malaria, and chronic illnesses.
  4. Being prepared will reduce the potential economic and social ramifications of the pandemic, and potentially save billions of dollars.
  5. Preparing for a pandemic will help to prepare your community for other disease outbreaks, natural disasters, or other crises.

What is pandemic influenza?

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new form of an influenza virus starts spreading. Because it is a new virus, people have no resistance to it and it therefore spreads easily from person to person worldwide.

People are also more likely to become sick in a short period of time. Previous influenza pandemics have led to widespread disease and death.

How is pandemic influenza different from avian influenza?

Avian influenza is a strain of the influenza virus (H5N1) that is generally found in birds, and in a few cases the virus has infected people. Pandemic influenza will occur when this virus or another new strain of the influenza virus changes into a strain that easily infects and spreads among humans.

How is pandemic influenza different from seasonal influenza?

There are several key differences between pandemic and seasonal influenza. Seasonal outbreaks of the flu are caused by flu viruses that are already circulating among people, so they have some resistance to them.

Pandemic influenza is caused by a new strain of the virus that people have no resistance to. Because people have no resistance to it, pandemic influenza is likely to infect many more people and cause complications in more otherwise healthy people than seasonal influenza.

What drugs are available for treatment?

WHO and the US Government are investing in the research and development of vaccines to prevent catching the H5N1 virus and medications to treat the H5N1 virus in people. There are several studies being conducted to test the vaccines but these are not ready for wide distribution, and will only work if the pandemic is due to H5N1.

Currently, there are two medications (antivirals) that are given to people with seasonal fl u that reduce symptoms like aches and pains – they may also shorten the length of the illness and help prevent its spreading. These medications' brand names are Tamiflu and Relenza and their generic names are oseltamivir and zanamivir.

Most medical experts believe these may be helpful during an influenza pandemic but they are not a guarantee. We should not rely on medications to combat pandemic influenza. It could be at least six months into a pandemic before an effective vaccine becomes available, and even then, supplies will be limited and expensive. It is important that we not rely on or plan for a pharmaceutical treatment. Instead, we should plan to practice other measures such as social distancing.

How serious of a threat is pandemic influenza?

It is a very serious public health issue. The leading international health organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), along with donor nations, including the US, Great Britain and Japan, have committed fi nancial and human resources to conduct research that will help reduce the threat and minimize the effects of an influenza pandemic.

How can pandemic influenza be spread from person to person?

Pandemic influenza can be spread the same way seasonal influenza is spread - by coughing, sneezing, or touching something that has come in contact with the virus from people’s sneezes or coughs.

One person can give influenza to another person if they are in close contact (generally within an arm’s length). Influenza can spread easily in places where there are many people in close contact. People with influenza can spread the disease even before they have symptoms.

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