The recent spread of the Asian bird flu across Asia and Europe, added to the fact there hasn't been an influenza pandemic in 36 years, is fuelling concerns that an outbreak is due.

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 three known strains of the influenza virus (influenza A, B, and C).

But if a radically different new strain of the virus suddenly were 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, pneumonia or death and more significantly, the possibility that the virus would spread widely and rapidly. Such mass spreading is what is known as a pandemic.

In the case of a pandemic, there would likely be as many as three waves of outbreaks taking place over several months.

Historical patterns

While there is no set timetable, pandemics typically have occurred once every generation.

In the previous century, there were three pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 1968, respectively. The 1918 "Spanish flu" was particularly virulent, killing some 20 million people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "the 1957-58 and 1968-69 pandemics were caused by viruses containing a combination of genes from a human influenza virus and an avian influenza virus. The 1918-19 pandemic virus appears to have an avian origin."

Because there hasn't been one in 36 years, experts believe we are essentially due for the next one.

Avian (bird) flu

Although the Avian flu has killed millions of birds in Asia, as well as other animals, 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 has 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.


Canada has contracted companies to work on H5N1 vaccine development.

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 time to create a vaccine applicable to the new virus strain.

Antiviral medications

Reports indicate Canada has plans to create a national antiviral stockpile, including about 16 million pills of Tamiflu® (oseltamivir), although this would treat only 1.6 million people.

The pills would need to be rationed, with priority given to such groups as health care and emergency workers, along with people hospitalized for the flu.

What can you do?

The best way to protect against influenza in general 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.