Friday, July 21, 2006

So what is a flu pandemic, anyway?

It is getting pretty confusing. On TV, in newspapers and online, we keep hearing about how a flu pandemic is likely. Then, the conversation turns to bird flu. The other day, one of our staff members talked to her mom, who asked "What is the difference between a flu pandemic and the flu that I get a shot for every year?" Even though her mother was pretty up on the news, she was confused and wanted to know more. So what is the difference between regular flu and avian flu, and why are people making a flu pandemic seem so scary?

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new type of flu virus that our bodies are not protected against spreads around the world, causing serious illness and possibly even death.

The flu shot that people are encouraged to get every year for seasonal flu will offer little or no protection against pandemic flu, as this new virus won't be included in the shot ingredients.

Because our bodies have not come across the flu virus that causes a pandemic before, people can easily catch it from one another. Anyone who gets the new virus can become much sicker than they would for seasonal flu, and can possibly die as a result.

So, what is the link to birds? The flu that is causing concern around the world right now is a strain that occurs primarily in poultry, such as chickens. It's also sickened other animals, including cats that have eaten birds. More troubling, though, is that this new type of bird flu has sickened people that are in close contact with birds, such as those that work and live on farms.
Right now, people can not easily catch this bird flu from another person. But that could change if the virus mutates. If it does, it could cause the next flu pandemic.

Although people are used to flu season occurring at a certain time of year, a flu pandemic can happen anytime. It does not have to be winter or the normal flu season. The scary fact is that a flu pandemic will occur sometime in the future; we just do not know when.

Every year, more than 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized because of seasonal flu, and 36,000 people die from it. In the event of a flu pandemic, we are talking about something that can be hundreds of times worse than that. Past flu pandemics have sent millions to the hospital and killed hundreds of thousands in this country. It is definitely something that everybody needs to get ready for. The first step though is for everyone, including our friends, families, and our mothers, to learn more about pandemic flu.


Anonymous said...

It seems like many Americans don't know what a flu pandemic is. Even if they do, they don't see it as a threat to them. The real challenge for us will be to get people to understand this issue and the threat it poses. There are so many other things out there competing for their attention -- how can we make this one stand out?

Gayle Casel, MPH Student said...

When people hear the word, "flu", they think it is a temporary discomfort that will disappear in time. Public health departments need to be proactive rather than reactive with education. FACT sheets on this material should be available in all languages in places such as immunization clinics, libraries, child care centers, take-home school folders, and neighborhood community centers.