Many people wonder how real the threat is. If a pandemic struck, how capable we would be to handle it?

Read on to find out answers to some important questions.

What exactly is pandemic influenza?

Each year, a vaccine is developed to help prevent or reduce the impact of influenza or "the flu," based on 3 known strains of the influenza virus (influenza A, B, and C). Of the 3 influenza viruses, influenza A and B cause seasonal flu outbreaks in human and only influenza A virus is known to cause pandemic influenza.

If a radically different new strain of the influenza A virus were suddenly to strike, people would have little or potentially no immunity to it. This would pose a serious risk to their health, including susceptibility to infection, serious complication or death. There is also the possibility that the virus would rapidly spread globally. Such mass spreading is what is known as a pandemic. The pandemic influenza outbreak is determined by how the disease spread rather than how many deaths have occurred.

Historical patterns

While there is no set timetable, pandemic influenza is rare. In the 20th century, there were 4 pandemics: in 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009. The 1918 "Spanish flu" was particularly virulent, affecting 20% to 40% of the worldwide population and killing 50 million people.

The most recent pandemic influenza was during 2009–2010. A total of 74 countries were affected by H1N1 (swine flu) and it was estimated that there were from 8,870 to 18,300 H1N1-related deaths. It was called swine flu initially because the viral strain was similar to those circulated in pigs. It is important to note that humans cannot get H1N1 from eating properly handled and cooked pork or pork products.

Avian (bird) flu

Although the Avian flu has killed millions of birds as well as other animals in Asia, it has not spread in great numbers to human beings.

That being said, if a person with influenza simultaneously became infected with bird flu, a mingling between the two viruses could trigger human spreading and, ultimately, lead to a pandemic.

The World Health Organization therefore spearheaded production of a vaccine for H5N1 (the influenza A viruses identified in humans in Asia in 2004 and 2005) as a precaution to work against a possible bird flu pandemic.

Handling a pandemic

There is no way to prevent a pandemic. It is also difficult to accurately predict when it will arrive.

Nevertheless, steps are being taken to both minimize the impact and lessen the numbers of people who would die from it. Governments around the world have plans to prepare for the possibility of a new pandemic.

The two primary forms of action would be vaccines and antiviral medications.

Vaccines

Canada’s pandemic vaccine strategy maximizes provision of a safe and effective vaccine for all Canadians. But the reality is that a useful vaccine for a pandemic cannot be manufactured until the virus has emerged. The virus would have to be analyzed and it would take 4 to 6 months to create a vaccine applicable to the new virus strain.

Antiviral medications

Antiviral medications can be used to prevent or to treat influenza. The antiviral medications are important because it can be used at the start of the pandemic, when the vaccines are under development.

There are national antiviral stockpiles (NAS) in Canada that are managed by different levels of government. The NAS is composed of Tamiflu® (oseltamivir) and Relenza® (zanamivir). The national Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) is federally owned and intended to support the NAS.

The pills would need to be rationed, with priority given to such groups as health care and emergency workers, along with high-risk persons such as pregnant women, children, and residents of remote communities.

What can you do?

The best way to protect against influenza in general and minimize its spread is:

  • Get the flu shot.
  • Wash your hands with soap regularly.
  • Avoid going to work or school when you're sick.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing.