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What is Pandemic Influenza?

Pandemic influenza can be defined as a widespread infection (occurring in multiple countries) with a mutated form of the influenza A virus that has not previously been present in the human population. Most people exposed are likely to get it because the strain is new. The infection is potentially more dangerous because it is unpredictable and people don’t have immunity to it. It might result in a higher death rate, and it’s not always treatable.

To fully comprehend pandemic influenza, it’s first necessary to understand a little bit about the influenza A virus. Also called the flu, influenza A is a group of viruses that typically give people respiratory illness during the winter months. Each year when vaccines are made, doctors try to determine what strains of the influenza A virus they’re likely to see and they create the vaccine accordingly. However, at any time of year, influenza A viruses could mutate, often in animal populations, and the new form might be able to pass to humans. Avian flu is a mutated form of influenza A, but it has never caused an influenza pandemic because control to exposure has been high, and the disease doesn’t pass easily from person to person.

Prior to 2009, a striking influenza pandemic occurred in 1918-1919. The influenza A (H1N1) virus mutated into an extremely contagious form. It affected people around the globe, killing about 5% who got the infection. People died by the millions in some of the more populous countries of the world. A pandemic like this one tends to create fear among doctors and the average person, since it illustrates the potential seriousness of worldwide contagion with a new virus strain.

Though it’s always a concern when a new virus strain emerges, not all of them are more lethal than the average flu. It should be noted that the seasonal flus most people get cause about 30-50,000 deaths in the US alone each year. While this scenario is always possible, the 2009 mutation of H1N1, also called swine flu or avian-swine flu virus, does not have the same trajectory. This is mutated virus that has reached pandemic level, and been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, meaning the contagion has occurred in a wide number of places across the world.

There have been deaths associated with H1N1, but the flu has also had a high rate of recovery. Initially, when it occurred in Mexico, it seemed that a high death rate was likely, and the primary victims were not the medically vulnerable, but the young and strong. As the flu crossed to the US, it seems to have more affected those with previous medical conditions, and been more like the standard seasonal flus people get.

Pandemic influenza obviously needs to be taken seriously. It is possible for a 1918 scenario to occur again. For this reason, governments frequently stockpile things like antiviral drugs, and they usually have plans in place should a large number of people suddenly require medical care. While these plans are excellent to have, it’s also vital for the average person to remember that pandemic influenza does not necessarily mean the flu a person might catch is worse than the average flu.

It’s obviously wise to take precautions in avoiding contagion. Yet bear in mind the definition of pandemic influenza: widespread infection with a mutation of the influenza A virus. The mutation itself does not necessarily mean that the flu is more dangerous, more indicated in societal disruption, or more likely to cause death.

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