Why Should You Care About Flu Pandemics?

Vials of H1N1 flu vaccine from the 2009 pandemic. Paul Kane/Getty Images News

If you are like most people, you probably aren't very concerned about the flu. A vast majority of people think it's not much more than a bad cold (or they think it's a stomach bug - which it isn't). 

We hear about the flu every fall and are encouraged to get flu vaccines, but most of us don't think much about it. Even fewer people have concerns about the potential for a flu pandemic. There is a significant difference between a flu pandemic and the seasonal flu.

Most people don't realize that either. 

What Is The Difference?

Seasonal flu occurs each year at about the same time. In the United States, flu season generally starts sometime between October and December and lasts until March or April. Seasonal flu can be caused by several types of influenza virus. These viruses mutate and change each year, so the same strain does not make people sick each year. 

Flu pandemics do not occur every year. In the past century, they have occurred every 20-30 years. They are caused by new flu viruses - typically influenza A strains that have mutated from a strain that once only infected animals (usually birds or pigs) to one that now infects humans and can be spread by human-to-human contact. A majority of people have no immunity to these mutated influenza viruses, making everyone susceptible. When pandemics occur, the "season" will not follow typical flu patterns.

The outbreaks generally last a year or longer and may occur in waves. 

Why You Should Care

You should care about the possibility of a flu pandemic because they can occur at any time and have the potential to be devastating to communities around the world. It is estimated that 50 million people died as a result of the 1918 flu pandemic.

While we hope that our medical systems in place today would help prevent such widespread loss of life, there is no guarantee. 

Flu pandemics tend to be more deadly than the seasonal flu. Vaccines are harder to produce because the demand is so great and the need is immediate. It takes 6 months to manufacture flu vaccines and in the case of a flu pandemic, many people could die while waiting. 

What You Can Do

Don't fool yourself into thinking the flu is nothing more than a bad cold or that even if you get it, you will recover without any problem. Often when serious flu pandemics strike, it's the young healthy adults that are hit the hardest. History has shown us that pandemic flu strains don't follow the same rules as seasonal flu. Those that are at high risk for seasonal flu may not be the same as those at high risk for pandemic flu. 

If a flu pandemic does occur, don't panic. Take recommended precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones. Simple things like washing your hands, covering your cough and avoiding sick people whenever possible can go a long way to preventing the spread of the disease.

If vaccines are available, get one and encourage others to do the same. It's quite possible that even if you were vaccinated against the seasonal flu that you will need another vaccine for the pandemic strain. Because pandemic flu strains are so different from seasonal flu, the annual flu vaccine likely won't protect you from it.

Pay attention to health advisories and recommendations from public health authorities such as the CDC and WHO. These organizations work on a global scale to determine the most appropriate prevention and treatment in the outbreak of any disease that may affect many people. 


"About Pandemics". Flu.gov. US Department of Health and Human Services. 27 May 15. 

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