Pandemic Influenza FAQ


What is Pandemic Influenza?

Pandemic influenza is a global outbreak of disease that occurs when a new influenza A virus appears in humans, causes serious illness and then spreads easily from person to person worldwide.

What’s the difference between a pandemic and a seasonal outbreak of flu?

A pandemic is caused by a new influenza A virus that most people have never been exposed to, so everyone is susceptible. Pandemic strains also often cause more serious disease. Because of this, past influenza pandemics have led to high levels of illness, death, social disruption and economic loss. Seasonal outbreaks of flu are caused by strains of influenza virus similar to those of past years. Some people may have built up immunity, and there is also a vaccine for each year’s flu season.

When is the next influenza pandemic expected?

No one can predict when a pandemic might occur, but many scientists believe it is only a matter of time before the next one arises. Experts from around the world are watching the H5N1 avian (bird) influenza situation in Asia very closely and are preparing for the possibility that the virus may begin to spread more easily and widely from person to person. To date, the spread of avian influenza to humans has appeared mainly from birds to humans. There was evidence of some limited person-to- person transmission in Thailand last year, but avian flu viruses have rarely been transmitted from person-to-person. If the avian influenza viruses become able to spread readily from person-to-person, the risk of epidemics and a pandemic would be greatly increased. Without a readily available flu vaccine specific to that virus, world-wide outbreaks of flu would be likely.

Will an influenza pandemic be caused by the bird-flu in Asia?

Although the Health Department is concerned about avian (bird) influenza and its potential to develop into a pandemic, we need to address pandemic influenza planning as a whole, not just planning for the spread of the strain of avian influenza now in SE Asia. We don’t know if avian influenza will spread and develop into a worldwide pandemic. The next pandemic could be with a completely different strain of influenza, and could come from a different part of the world. The Health Department’s planning for pandemic influenza addresses a broad range of issues.

Although there have been bird flu type viruses seen in poultry flocks in the USA, it is not the same type of virus as in Asia and they do not cause serious disease in humans. Public health and agriculture agencies work closely to monitor and control these situations.

What risks do Fairfax County residents face due to the Asian bird flu?

The current risk to persons in this area from the H5N1 bird flu outbreak in Asia is low. The strain of H5N1 virus found in Asia has not been found in the United States. There have been no human cases of H5N1 flu in the United States. It is possible that travelers returning from affected countries in Asia could be infected, though the risk of this type of transmission to the United States is relatively small because the rate of illness in affected countries is still very low. Since February 2004, medical and public health personnel have been watching closely to find any such cases.

Will my annual flu shot protect against pandemic influenza?

Changes in the genetic make up of influenza viruses are occurring all the time, which is why people do not always develop useful immunity after getting the flu. Current flu vaccines will not protect against a new pandemic strain of influenza virus. Because it takes several months to develop and distribute vaccine for a new strain, a vaccine probably would not be available in the early stages of a pandemic. 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.

Are there any other treatments for pandemic flu?

Antiviral medications can be used to treat and/or prevent influenza A viruses. However, influenza strains can become resistant to antiviral medications. For example, only one antiviral medication works against the H5N1 avian influenza virus identified in human patients in Asia in 2004 and 2005. The supply of this antiviral medication is very limited worldwide, and no pharmaceutical company in the United States manufactures it.

Can pandemic flu be prevented?

A person infected with influenza virus can be contagious for 24 hours before the onset of symptoms, and for seven days thereafter, making it extremely easy for the virus to spread rapidly to large numbers of people. It may not be possible to prevent or stop a pandemic once it begins. Some strategies for slowing the spread of a severe influenza outbreak could include temporarily closing schools, sports arenas, theaters, restaurants, taverns, and other public gathering places and facilities. If available, the use of vaccines and anti-viral drugs may also slow the spread of the outbreak. However, there currently is no vaccine to protect humans against a pandemic influenza virus because the pandemic virus has not yet fully developed. Vaccine development efforts are under way to protect humans against a pandemic influenza virus that might develop from the current bird flu virus in Asia.

What else can be done to minimize the risk of pandemic influenza?

Stop the spread of germs!

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing

• Wash hands thoroughly and often

• Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth

• Stay home when you are sick

What else can I do to prepare myself for an influenza pandemic?

Learn more and stay informed!

• Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the latest information on pandemic flu.

• If you plan to travel to Southeast Asia , go to the CDC travel advisories web page for the latest travel information.


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