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What is influenza or the flu?

There are two main types of influenza viruses, A and B. Currently, two strains of circulating influenza A subtypes affect people: H1N1 and H3N2. The Swine Flu is an H1N1 subtype. Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, body aches, headache, fatigue, a dry cough, sore throat and congestion. It is very much like the common cold.

Influenza viruses can undergo two kinds of change. One is a series of mutations over time that cause a gradual evolution of the virus, known as "drift" that results in the emergence of new strains. The other is an abrupt change in the surface proteins, known as "antigenic shift," which results in new subtypes of influenza A.

What is a Pandemic Flu?

Pandemics result from the emergence of an influenza A virus that people have not been exposed to and, therefore, do not have protective immunity against. However, in order for a new influenza virus to have the potential of becoming a pandemic, it must also be easily transmitted from person-to-person, have the ability to replicate in humans as well as cause disease.

Flu pandemics have been recognized since the 1500s with an average of about three pandemics occurring in each century. During the 20th century, pandemics occurred in 1918, 1957, and 1968. The number of deaths during a pandemic seems to depend more on the degree of contagion of a virus than on the availability of vaccines.

In the 1918-19 pandemic, more than 675,000 deaths were reported in U.S. with 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide. More Americans died of the flu in 1918-19 than died in WWI. As a matter of fact, more Americans died during this pandemic than all the wars in the 20th century combined.

In the 1957-58 pandemic, 70,000 deaths were reported in the U.S. with 1 to 2 million deaths worldwide. In the 1968-69 pandemic, only 34,000 deaths were reported in the U.S. with about 700,000 deaths worldwide. 

What You Should Know About Vaccines

Vaccines are virus specific, meaning they are only effective against one form of one virus. Vaccines increase your immunity to a virus but are not 100% effective. Nor are they a cure for influenza viruses. Annual flu vaccines are developed based on informed predictions about which flu strain is likely to be most predominant that year. Pandemic viruses remain unknown until they begin to infect populations. At that point, it takes at least six months to develop a vaccine against that strain of influenza. If highly contagious, the death toll will skyrocket before a vaccine can be administered to control its spread.

Should You Be Concerned?

Absolutely. There is no way to predict when the next influenza pandemic will occur, but the longest lapse of time between pandemics has been 42 years. It has been 40 years since the last pandemic. There is no cure for influenza or viral pneumonia, a secondary infection that often accompanies the flu. Even bacterial pneumonia has a 20% to 30% death rate as a secondary infection connected with the flu, even with antibiotics. Flu symptoms are often more severe during a pandemic than the typical fall flu season and may have more complications, so even healthy individuals may be at more risk for complications during a pandemic.

How Would a Pandemic Affect You?

You may expect that up to 50% of the populatin will become infected. Disruptions to utilities, banking and businesses would be affected due to absenteeism from work. Pandemics occur in waves lasting three to eight weeks over a 12 to 24 month span of time. Expect vaccines and antiviral drugs to be unavailable or in short supply until the second wave hits at the very earliest. Health care professionals will be in high demand, so expect delays and limited care for other ailments. Chances are, you will be on your own with limited community or government assistance.

The good news is, there is a lot you can do now to lessen the affects of a pandemic on you and your family should one occur in the near future.

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