With viruses like smallpox, measles or mumps, vaccinations provide protection for life. However, the influenza virus is always changing. It is necessary to update your flu vaccine regularly. This is similar to updating anti-viral software on your computer to prevent problems from a new computer virus.
The 20th century brought with it three major flu pandemics. The most harmful was in 1918, in which an estimated 40 million people died. In later epidemics, the very young and very old were most at risk. However, the 1918 epidemic was unusual in that it was especially deadly for young men and women. We now believe many who died may also have had TB or complications from bacterial infections that developed from the flu. Remember, antibiotics were not widely available until the 1950s.
Next came the Asian flu pandemic in 1957. The global death toll was estimated at two million. In the UK alone, 30,000 deaths were blamed on influenza. About half of schoolchildren were thought to be infected. It is interesting that the actual annual death rate in 1957 was no different than that of 1956 or 1958. Most who died of influenza had other life-threatening illnesses from which they would have died within months had they not caught flu.
Most recent was the Hong Kong flu in 1968. The death toll in the world was estimated at one million. By far the majority of deaths were in people over age 65. The influenza vaccine was not widely available in either 1957 or 1968.
It is possible the influenza AH5N1 virus could mutate (change) to become the source of the next great flu pandemic. Currently this virus is not overly contagious, and does not spread readily from person to person. To cause a pandemic, it must be able to do so. Prior pandemic influenza viruses have been able to stay alive on surfaces such as tabletops and doorknobs for up to 24 hours.
As global travel is much more common now, it is likely the next flu pandemic will spread quickly around the world. As with prior pandemics, up to 20 per cent of the work force could be affected at one time, including health care workers.
Simple actions could drastically reduce the effects of a flu outbreak.
If you hear news of a pandemic, stay away from unnecessary large gatherings. If you can work from home, do so. School may be cancelled for a few weeks. As with when the SARS epidemic took place, put off travel plans if possible.
Standard rules of hygiene apply. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Dispose discarded tissues in a wastebasket to avoid infecting others. Wash tabletops and other surfaces that are touched regularly with alcohol or bleach-based cleansers.
Although a regular flu shot may not prevent the pandemic type of influenza, it will help fight viral infections. Healthy individuals who eat well and exercise regularly are less likely to come down with colds or influenza.
Some anti-viral drugs available today work against currently known influenza viruses. However, resistance to these drugs is rapidly developing. There is no way to be sure that current flu medications will have an effect on the cause of the next influenza pandemic.
Although another influenza pandemic is a possibility, simple actions can help protect most people. For further information or updates during a pandemic, check the Government of Canada’s website (www.influenza.gc.ca/) or The Public Health Agency of Canada website (www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/influenza). These sites also have links to provincial public websites.