A pandemic is an epidemic occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting a very large proportion of the population. The pandemic of "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" influenza in 1918 was a global disaster. This influenza of 1918-1919 killed more people than World War I, estimated between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year (between 1918 & 1919) than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351.
Through modern medical advances, many of the devastating diseases throughout history have been nearly eliminated, and most that have not been eliminated have been reduced in severity so much that a patient can simply be given a prescription to eliminate the condition. However, new dangers to human health are still being discovered today. The World Health Organization and the US Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are constantly vigilant in the attempt to identify and eliminate these new dangers.
Currently, the avian flu of Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa is gaining increased attention in the media. However, the avian flu is not a pandemic. There have not been large numbers of human infection. Avian influenza refers to a large group of different influenza viruses that primarily affect birds. On rare occasions, these bird viruses can infect other species, including pigs and humans. The vast majority of avian influenza viruses do not infect humans. An influenza pandemic happens when a new subtype emerges that has not previously circulated in humans.
Avian H5N1 is a strain with pandemic potential, since it might ultimately adapt into a strain that is contagious among humans. Once this adaptation occurs, it will no longer be a bird virus--it will be a human influenza virus. Influenza pandemics are caused by new influenza viruses that have adapted to humans. Due to the concern that avian flu strain H5N1 could mutate into human to human transfer, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization are monitoring the spread of avian flu and watching it for any changes. Surveillance, monitoring and tracking disease outbreaks helps health officials allocate resources effectively and efficiently. Epidemiologists use monitoring data to predict where and how disease might spread. It is important to know where disease outbreaks not only begin in the world, but also how and where they might spread in the United States. A primary goal of avian flu monitoring is to identify any outbreak of human-to-human transmission quickly so health officials can attempt to contain and control the outbreak.
Flu Terms Defined:
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 H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is 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.
For complete information regarding a pandemic, the avian flu outbreak, or other widespread health issues, visit one of these resources:
- PandemicFlu.gov & AvianFlu.gov
- US Department of Health and Human Services
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
Planning for a Pandemic
Planning is paramount in any emergency situation. Most residents of New England are accustomed to planning for winter emergencies, but planning is the benchmark of readiness for any emergency situation that may occur.
The following links are to pages within the PandemicFlu.gov website contain information about planning: