Flu Pandemic

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a pandemic occurs when three conditions have been met:

  • Agents infect humans, causing serious illness
  • Agents spread easily and sustainably among humans
  • The disease is able to consistently emerge in new populations.

Throughout our existence, as a population, we have managed to survive many deadly viruses and bacteria. The last major influenza epidemic, which killed millions of people, occurred in 1918. The Spanish flu infected more than one-third of the world’s population and killed as many as 100 million people. If a virus with the same deadly characteristics were to infect the world now, then over two billion people would be ill, resulting in 360 million deaths. Not only would lives be lost, but the financial burden would be astronomically high—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 730 billion to 1.6 trillion dollars would need to be spent globally to eradicate the disease. Will we have to face this nightmare with the current swine flu? And what is a pandemic, anyway?

The Influenza Pandemic

The influenza virus is notorious for its ability to cause repeat epidemics and global pandemics. How does this virus keep coming back? First of all, influenza has the ability to infect across species, such as from pigs to humans. Secondly, once the virus is in humans, it continues to alter its genes to evade immunity so that it can “hide” from attack.

Scientists have learned much about the how influenza virus works. However, these viruses remain very unpredictable and dangerous. We don’t know when or where the next influenza outbreak will occur.

Since April 2009, the swine flu virus has spread globally. Early on, clinics became overwhelmed by the number of people infected, and the WHO and CDC stopped counting cases, tracking outbreak locations instead. In June 2009, health officials declared the swine flu virus to be a pandemic strain.

H1N1 Cases Worldwide - H1N1 Pandemic

What Will Happen During this Pandemic?

Many preparations and strategic discussions have been held as to how to control the spread of disease. As of December 2009, its extent and severity has been relatively mild compared to previous pandemics. Early estimates had approximately 90,000 Americans dying as a direct or indirect result of H1N1, but the current estimate is around 10,000 to 15,000. Perhaps Americans are paying attention to safe hygienic practices, such as washing hands and avoiding contact with sick people. Others applaud flu vaccination efforts, including heightened public awareness.

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff. (2009). H1N1 flu and you. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/qa.htm.

Fiore, A. et al. (2009). Prevention and control of seasonal influenza with vaccines. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr58e0724a1.htm.

Maugh, T. (2009). Swine flu may be mildest pandemic ever, researchers say. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from the Los Angeles Times Web site: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/booster_shots/2009/12/swine-flu-may-be-mildest-pandemic-ever-researchers-say.html.

Nebehay, S. (2009). H1N1 pandemic starting to wane in some countries: WHO. Retrieved December 11, 2009, from the ABC News Web site: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory?id=9236206.