What Factors can Cause an Influenza Pandemic?

T. Carrier

The potential of an influenza pandemic has remained one of the most prevalent health concerns since the 20th century. Such an outbreak results from a massive, often global spread of the influenza virus. Although advancements in medical technology have somewhat curtailed these occurrences, researchers still estimate an influenza pandemic will occur about three times each century. Several factors intermingle to create the conditions for a pandemic: animals, virus mutations, and scientific and economic hardship.

Pigs appear to act as reservoirs for the flu.
Pigs appear to act as reservoirs for the flu.

An influenza pandemic occurs with varying degrees of intensity. Many instances simply lead to an elevated number of flu cases on a large scale. On occasion, however, an outbreak can lead to a deadly catastrophe. Perhaps the most infamous influenza pandemic in modern times occurred during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. This particular pandemic claimed over 50 million lives worldwide.

An influenza pandemic occurs with varying degrees of intensity.
An influenza pandemic occurs with varying degrees of intensity.

An interaction between mutations, or changes, in the influenza virus and animal infection serves as the genesis for most flu pandemics. Since the flu virus has been treated with vaccines and other medical remedies for many years, the virus constantly develops new ways to adapt and thus resist these treatments. As a result, the virus is constantly evolving into new strains. When one of these strains develops a resistance to traditional flu fighters, the groundwork has been laid for a large-scale outbreak. Many scientists believe certain types of influenza virus, such as the H5N1 strain, have a greater potential for more serious mutation.

Individuals over the age of 50 are advised to receive an influenza immunization.
Individuals over the age of 50 are advised to receive an influenza immunization.

A large percentage of mutated influenza viruses begin in animals other than humans precisely because they have no advanced resistance to influenza viruses. These mutations can then grow and spread unabated among the animal population in question. Certain animals seem to have a higher susceptibility to the new flu bugs. Common infected creatures include pigs and birds, particularly ducks and chickens.

Influenza may cause a fever and stomach ache.
Influenza may cause a fever and stomach ache.

The pandemic begins in earnest when the animal flu virus is transmitted to humans, usually via a bite, scratch, or contact with animal excretions. Even though these cases may happen in isolated instances, the human-to-human spread of the virus will likely be rapid because of the virus’ immunity to flu shots or other preventive measures. Depending on the strength and potency of the virus, outbreaks may escalate into a full-blown pandemic before appropriate action can be implemented.

Due to technological advances, scientists can often predict if a new strain of flu virus has pandemic potential. Therefore, government and medical officials may take action to control the spread of suspect influenza viruses. Pandemics often take hold when infected areas are ill-equipped to take proper action, typically due to economic disadvantage or lack of resources and preparedness. The two most frequent retaliatory actions against an influenza pandemic are quarantine and vaccine development.

In cooperation with local officials, a country’s government may close off areas where an infection or series of infections has begun from other regions. On a smaller scale, a hospital may also put infected patients into quarantine, or isolation. While the spread is being contained, medical personnel are commissioned to treat the infected. Meanwhile, scientists will study the mutated flu virus and work to develop a medication, or vaccine, that can break down its resistance.

Scientists and medical professionals from across the world work every day to prevent the next influenza epidemic. In fact, flu containment is one of the primary responsibilities of the World Health Organization. This group classifies and tracks potential threats and distributes influenza education materials for public consumption.

Understanding and treating influenza is an important step in combating the disease’s deadly potential. The virus produces an infectious disease that is spread among mammals. Common symptoms of influenza infection are fever, muscle aches, headaches, coughing, sore throat, and general weakness. Infection is transmitted through body fluids, through the air via coughing or sneezing, or sometimes through contact with a surface that has traces of the virus. A flu shot is perhaps the most effective weapon against influenza, especially for certain subgroups like young children, the elderly, or individuals with weakened immune systems.

Failing to properly wash hands can spread infection.
Failing to properly wash hands can spread infection.

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