What is an influenza pandemic?
There are three characteristics that distinguish a flu pandemic from the seasonal flu outbreaks that occur every year.
The pandemic is caused by a new strain of flu virus to which people have no immunity. Immunity is the body’s ability to fight infection and disease.
The virus is spread easily from person to person.
The virus is capable of causing severe illness and many deaths.
Flu pandemics tend to arrive with very little warning. This new virus may be a combination of viruses that have not circulated among people for a long time. Most people will have no natural protection or immunity from the new virus. Because of this, the new virus is especially dangerous, and could lead to high rates of illness and death.
Whatâ??s the difference between pandemic influenza and seasonal influenza?
An influenza pandemic has little in common with the annual flu season that we are all familiar with. During an influenza pandemic, the chances of becoming sick
are not only greater, but the disease is more likely to cause more complications and deaths.
Seasonal outbreaks of influenza are caused by viruses commonly known to make people sick. Pandemic influenza is caused by a new virus to which people
have no immunity.
Seasonal influenza outbreaks do not disrupt everyday life. But past influenza pandemics have caused high levels of sickness and death, major social disruptions and economic loss.
Have people in the U.S. died during influenza pandemics?
In 1918 the Spanish flu claimed the lives of 500,000 Americans. This was an unusually severe influenza pandemic.
The Asian flu pandemic of 1957 resulted in the deaths of 69,800 U.S. citizens.
The Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968, the least severe of the 20th century pandemics, resulted in 33,800 deaths.
Every year, seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans.
Can scientists predict when the next pandemic will occur or how bad it will be?
Influenza pandemics occur about once every 30 years. It is impossible to predict when the next influenza pandemic will occur or how severe it will be. It is also unknown which influenza strain will cause the next influenza pandemic.
Is there a vaccine to protect against the virus that could cause a pandemic?
No. A vaccine against a pandemic strain of influenza cannot be developed until a pandemic begins. After the pandemic begins, scientists can identify the strain and begin the process of creating a vaccine to help control the outbreak. Making a new vaccine takes a long time. It is likely that a new vaccine for an influenza pandemic would be in short supply until larger amounts of vaccine could be produced. If a pandemic occurs, it is expected that the U.S. government will work with many partner groups to make recommendations to guide the early use of vaccine.
What age groups are most likely to be affected during an influenza pandemic?
Although scientists cannot predict the specific consequences of an influenza pandemic, it is likely that many age groups would be seriously affected. Factors to consider include the following:
- Few if any people would have immunity to the virus.
- The virus could spread rapidly.
- An influenza pandemic could temporarily disrupt activities important to overall public health, the economy, and essential community services.
Are there any medications that can prevent or treat influenza during a pandemic?
There are several antiviral medications available that may help prevent and treat influenza. Antivirals may be effective when they are taken within 48 hours of symptom onset. The benefit of antivirals is that they reduce the severity of symptoms and shorten the length of time you are sick by about one day. Antivirals can also make you less contagious to others.
However, it is unlikely that antivirals would largely change the course or effectively contain the spread of an influenza pandemic. These drugs require a prescription from a healthcare provider. The federal government is creating a stockpile of antiviral medications, but there currently is not enough for everyone in the U.S.
What are public health officials in the U.S. doing to prepare for a possible influenza pandemic?
Despite our best efforts, a severe influenza pandemic could lead to high rates of death, disruptions to everyday life and economic loss. The U.S. government has developed a comprehensive influenza pandemic plan that addresses the development of vaccines, increased surveillance and detection systems, and expansion of the current stockpile of medicines. Efforts to plan and prepare for pandemic influenza are continuing at the national, state, and local levels.
Is New Jersey doing anything to prepare for a possible pandemic?
Like many other states, New Jersey has developed and continually updates a statewide influenza pandemic plan. This plan will help guide public health officials in responding to an influenza pandemic. Some of the issues the plan addresses are disease surveillance, vaccine distribution and the delivery and use of antiviral medication. The influenza pandemic plan will also help New Jersey’s medical experts monitor how influenza is spreading, outlines public health methods to control the spread and guide health care facilities to handle excessive numbers of patients.
Will schools and businesses be closed during an influenza pandemic?
- Using isolation and quarantine
- Closing schools and workplaces
- Canceling large public events
Advice is likely to change as an influenza pandemic unfolds and more is learned, so it is important to stay informed.
Is there anything I can do to protect myself and family from influenza?
Protect yourself from influenza by taking the same steps you would to guard yourself against colds and other illnesses:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.
- Keep your hands away from your face.
- Keep your distance from people that are coughing, sneezing or sick.
- Stay home from work and school if you are sick and keep children home if they are sick.
- Consult your healthcare provider if symptoms persist or become severe.
- Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner frequently throughout the day, especially after coughing or sneezing. Soap does not need to be antibacterial soap.
- Get vaccinated yearly for the seasonal flu. If you are an individual at high risk for complications from the seasonal flu it is very important that you get vaccinated. High risk individuals include:
- People aged 65 years and older, with and without chronic health conditions
- Residents of long-term care facilities
- People aged 2–64 years with chronic health conditions
- Children aged 6–23 months
- Pregnant women
- Health-care personnel who provide direct patient care
- Household contacts and out-of-home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age
These are very simple steps that can have a big impact on slowing the spread of disease. Develop good hygiene habits now before an influenza pandemic starts.
What can I do to prepare for an influenza pandemic?
Plan for the possibility that usual services may be disrupted. These could include services provided by hospitals and other health care facilities, banks, stores, restaurants, government offices, and post offices.
Consider how to care for people with special needs in case the services they rely on are not available.
Think about how you can rely less on public transportation during a pandemic. For example, store food and other essential supplies so you can make fewer trips to the store.
Prepare backup plans for taking care of loved ones who are far away.
Stock a supply of water and food. During a pandemic you may not be able to get to a store. Even if you can get to a store, it may be out of supplies. Public waterworks services may also be interrupted. Stocking supplies can
be useful in other types of emergencies, such as power outages and disasters. Store foods that: are nonperishable (will keep for a long time) and don’t require refrigeration, are easy to prepare in case you are unable to cook, and require little or no water, so you can conserve water for drinking
Get informed. Knowing the facts is the best preparation. Identify sources you can count on for reliable information. If a pandemic occurs, having accurate and reliable information will be critical.
The NJ Department of Health and Senior Services
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Listen to local and national radio, watch news reports on television, and read your newspaper and other sources of printed and Web-based information.
Talk to your local health care providers and public health officials.