Learning about pandemic influenza for the first time can be confusing and a little scary, so knowing all the facts will help you understand what an influenza pandemic is and how you can prepare for it.
Information for this FAQ was gathered from the Region of Waterloo Pandemic Influenza Planning website and the Canadian and Ontario governments.
Influenza - or "the flu" - is a common, seasonal respiratory illness. The flu can leave you drained and tired, with muscle pains, headaches, chills, fevers, a sore throat or a bad cough. The flu is contagious and circulates on a seasonal basis, usually from October to April (the winter time). Luckily, there is always a vaccine available before each season which will help make you immune to the virus and prevent its spread.
An influenza pandemic occurs when a strain of the flu virus changes in composition, becomes highly contagious, spreads quickly from person to person and moves quickly around the world. Because the population is not immune to the new virus, it will affect more people and cause higher rates of illness. Unlike many other viral respiratory infections (like the common cold) the flu causes severe illness and life-threatening complications in many people, so simultaneous epidemics worldwide could cause enormous numbers of deaths and illnesses.
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Avian influenza - or "bird flu" - is a virus that affects all species of birds but can, less commonly, infect mammals such as pigs and humans. A strain that is currently circulating (H5N1) causes more serious illness, especially in poultry. Health experts have been monitoring this new and extremely severe influenza virus strain since 1997. The H5N1 strain first infected humans in Hong Kong in 1997, causing 18 cases, including six deaths. Since mid-2003, this virus has caused the largest and most severe outbreaks in poultry on record. In December 2003, infections in people exposed to sick birds were identified.
Since then there have been hundreds of human cases mostly in Asian and developing countries, and more than half of these people have died. Most cases have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults. Fortunately, the virus does not jump easily from birds to humans or spread readily among humans. Should H5N1 evolve to a form as contagious as normal influenza, a pandemic could begin.
While the seasonal flu is severe in the very old and very young, everyone will be at risk during a pandemic. Certain groups may be more at risk than others, but this will not be known until a pandemic happens.
So everyone must be careful and aware. The 1918-1919 influenza
pandemic infected and killed mainly healthy young adults in their 20s
A pandemic will result in significant social and economic disruption. Demand and supply of products will shift. Supply chains will be disrupted. There will be shortages of certain goods and materials. Employee illness and absenteeism will rise (absences from work may be 30 to 35 per cent or higher during the height of a pandemic). Organizations will find it difficult to maintain their current levels of service.
Therefore, classes, campus services, and even residences could be affected due to a lack of personnel, and certain areas and/or buildings may have to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the illness.
Health Services (HS) has posted signage instructing all visitors at point of entry and requests all visitors/clients to wash their hands prior to entry. Individuals with coughs are instructed to mask until cleared by a nurse or doctor.
Hand washing and cough etiquette posters are provided to all dons in late September/early October at the beginning of the traditional flu season.
Annual flu immunization clinics are held, both to help prevent seasonal influenza and also to ensure we are capable of mass immunization if a pandemic hits and a vaccine is developed.
HS is stockpiling supplies such as masks, gloves and personal protective equipment to ensure HS staff are equipped to assist with assessing Laurier students.
HS and EOHS are also following the latest developments by monitoring the World Health Organization and Ministry of Health and Health Canada's websites and updates, maintaining an open line of communication with our Public Health Officials, and benchmarking the activities of other colleges and universities.
The last four influenza pandemics were the "Spanish flu" in 1918-1919, the "Asian flu" in 1957-1958, the "Hong Kong flu" in 1968-1969, and the "H1N1 flu" in 2009-2010. We know that influenza pandemics are recurring events but they are unpredictable.
The virus circulating during a pandemic will be different from the viruses that circulated in the past, so a new vaccine will need to be developed. This cannot be done until the new strain is identified; therefore, a vaccine will be not be available at the start of a pandemic and will take at least four to six months to produce.
There are drugs known as antivirals that can treat flu, but for them to be effective people have to start taking them very soon after they start to get sick - in some cases before the symptoms start. Right now, Ontario has a stockpile of antiviral drugs for the province. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know if the antiviral drugs will work until we know more about the specific strain of flu that is causing the pandemic.
That is why personal prevention and preparedness is so important. Find out what you can do by clicking here.
Also, please visit the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion's website for more information on the flu vaccine.