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> Health - Pandemic Influenza FAQ

Pandemic Influenza Frequently Asked Questions




A pandemic is an epidemic that spreads rapidly around the world with high rates of illness and death.

People are exposed to a variety of different strains of the flu virus every year. However, historical records show that several times each century entirely new flu strains develop. When a new strain develops it takes time for people to build an immunity to the new flu, and before anyone has had a chance to develop immunity the new flu strain can spread rapidly and widely. If the changed virus causes serious illness and easily spreads from person to person, a pandemic can occur.

Pandemics are different than seasonal flu outbreaks. Seasonal flu outbreaks are caused by small changes in influenza virus strains that people have already been exposed to. A new flu vaccine is developed each year to protect people against the expected changes in existing viruses. That's why annual flu vaccinations are needed and are effective.

But since an influenza pandemic is caused by an entirely new strain of flu virus, preparing a vaccine in advance is not as simple as it is for seasonal flu.

Currently there is concern about one strain of Avian influenza (bird flu), known as H5N1, because it is causing severe disease in wild birds, chickens, and other poultry in several continents. In some instances, people who have had close contact with sick poultry have also become infected, and some have died. There is concern that H5N1 will be able to change so that it will be easily spread from birds to humans and then from human to human.

New York State, local health departments and the federal government are actively involved in planning for the possibility of an influenza pandemic. The New York State Department of Health has developed an influenza pandemic plan and will update it as information and conditions change.


General Questions


Q. What is a pandemic?

A. An influenza pandemic is a global outbreak that results from the emergence of a new and very different influenza virus that can cause serious illness in humans, and spreads easily from person to person.

Q. What's the difference between a pandemic and a seasonal outbreak of influenza?

A. Influenza pandemics are caused by the emergence of a virus that is "novel" (brand new) or radically different from flu viruses that circulated previously. People have no or little natural resistance to a new virus, and there is no readily-available vaccine, so influenza pandemics often result in much more severe illness and death.

"Seasonal" influenza outbreaks are caused by small changes in the common influenza viruses. Even though these viruses may change slightly from one flu season to another, many people have developed some immunity. Because similar viruses have circulated previously, vaccine is more readily available.

Q. When will the next pandemic occur?

A. Influenza pandemics are known to have occurred several times each century since the Middle Ages. There were three influenza pandemics in the 20th century, in 1918, 1957 and 1968. Experts believe we are overdue for the next influenza pandemic.

No one can predict when a pandemic might occur, but many scientists from around the world are watching the H5N1 avian (bird) influenza situation in Asia and Europe very closely. They are preparing for the possibility that the virus in birds may change and become more easily transmissible among people.

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H5N1 Avian (Bird) Influenza


Q. Why is there concern about the H5N1 avian influenza outbreak in Asia and other countries?

A. Although it is unpredictable when the next pandemic will occur, and what strain of flu virus will cause it, the continued and expanded spread of a severe form of avian influenza in birds across eastern Asia and into a few countries in Europe represents a significant threat.

Q. Is the H5N1 virus the only avian influenza virus of concern regarding a pandemic?

A. Although H5N1 probably poses the greatest current pandemic threat, other avian influenzas have also infected people in recent years. For example, in 1999, human H9N2 infections were identified in Hong Kong; in 2002 and 2003, human H7N7 infections occurred in the Netherlands and human H7N3 infections occurred in Canada. These viruses also have the potential to give rise to the next pandemic.

Q. Will H5N1 cause the next influenza pandemic?

A. Scientists cannot predict whether the H5N1 avian influenza virus will cause a pandemic. But federal, state and local health officials are working with their counterparts across the world to track H5N1 as it occurs in birds, and to watch for possible human cases.

Click here for more information about “Bird Flu”




Q. Is there a pandemic influenza vaccine?

A. No. Federal officials have contracted with a manufacturer to produce a small supply of human vaccine against H5N1 bird flu, and clinical trials are underway. The vaccine might not be effective if the H5N1 virus changes to a strain that more easily infects humans.

Q. Why isn't there a vaccine available?

A. Large amounts of vaccine cannot be made before knowing exactly which virus is causing a pandemic. Production of a new vaccine takes approximately six months.

Q. Why won't the annual influenza vaccine protect people against pandemic influenza?

A. Influenza vaccines are designed to protect against specific viruses that have already been identified, so a pandemic vaccine cannot be produced until a new influenza virus emerges and starts to cause a significant number of human illnesses. A virus that could cause a pandemic would be very different from the seasonal flu viruses for which there is already vaccine.

Q. Can I get the vaccine once it's developed?

A. Very few people would be able to get vaccinated at first. If a pandemic occurs, federal, state and local governments will work with partner groups to make specific recommendations on the early use of vaccine. Current recommendations are to target limited vaccine supplies to people at high risk and healthcare workers.

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Antiviral Medications


Q. What are influenza antiviral medications?

A. These are prescription drugs that can reduce influenza symptoms and shorten the length of time people are sick. The drugs may also make a person less likely to spread influenza to others. To be effective, they must be taken within two days of becoming sick. Some antiviral medications may also be used to prevent influenza if they are taken over a long period of time.

Q. Which antiviral medications would be used in an avian flu pandemic?

A. At this time, Tamiflu® and Relenza® are the most likely antiviral medications to be used in a pandemic caused by the H5N1 virus. The effectiveness of these antivirals would vary depending on the level of resistance an influenza virus may have to one or more of these medications.

Q. Are there enough antiviral medications for everyone if a pandemic occurred now, and if not, who will get them?

A. No. Although the government is stockpiling antiviral medications, there are not enough now for everyone. The federal government has made recommendations about prioritizing who will be the first to receive antiviral medications based on their risk, role in fighting the pandemic, and severity of illness. Discussion continues on the best way to allocate these medications.


Preparing for an Influenza Pandemic


Q. What effect would an influenza pandemic have on our communities?

A. The effects of a pandemic could be severe. Many people could become sick at the same time and be unable to go to work. Many of us might have to stay at home to care for sick family members. Schools and businesses might close for a time to try to reduce the spread of disease. Large group gatherings might be canceled. These are examples of challenges that are being considered as we plan for a pandemic response.

Q. What can I do right now to prepare for a possible pandemic?

A. One of the most important things you can do is to help prevent spread of the disease. Begin now to practice simple but important habits that reduce the spread of germs:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing. Throw out the tissue in the nearest waste basket and wash your hands.
  • If you don't have a tissue, don't cough or sneeze into your hand. Instead, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm so you won't get germs on your hands and spread them to others.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. When hand washing is not possible, use antiseptic hand gels that contain alcohol.
  • Stay at least three feet from people who are coughing or sneezing.
  • Always practice good hand washing after contact with an ill person or soiled materials, such as tissues.
  • Stay at home when you are sick.
  • Keep your children home from school or daycare when they are sick.
  • If you go to the doctor's office or emergency department when you are sick, ask for a mask.
  • Keep a supply of non-perishable food and other essential household items on hand so you can minimize trips to stores and other crowded places in the event of a pandemic.
  • Learn more about the importance of a good home preparedness plan. You can visit the American Red Cross Web site for guidance in preparing one, or visit the federal government's Pandemic Influenza Web site for planning tools.
  • Stay informed.

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NY State Pandemic Influenza Plan

Learn more about influenza pandemics:

Sources: New York State Department of Health Influenza Pandemic and Pandemic Influenza FAQ 

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