Pandemic Influenza

Key Facts About Pandemic Influenza

An influenza pandemic is a global outbreak of disease that occurs when a new influenza. A virus appears or “emerges” in the human population, causes serious illness, and then spreads easily from person to person worldwide. Pandemics are different from seasonal outbreaks or “epidemics” of influenza. Seasonal outbreaks are caused by subtypes of influenza viruses that already circulate among people, whereas pandemic outbreaks are caused by new subtypes, by subtypes that have never circulated among people, or by subtypes that have not circulated among people for a long time. Past influenza pandemics have led to high levels of illness, death, social disruption, and economic loss.

Appearance (Emergence) of Pandemic Influenza Viruses

There are many different subtypes of influenza or “flu” viruses. The subtypes differ based upon certain proteins on the surface of the virus (the hemagglutinin or “HA” protein and the neuraminidase or the “NA” protein.

Pandemic viruses emerge as a result of a process called “antigenic shift,” which causes an abrupt or sudden, major change in influenza A viruses. These changes are caused by new combinations of the HA and/or NA proteins on the surface of the virus. Such changes result in a new influenza A virus subtype. The appearance of a new influenza A virus subtype is the first step toward a pandemic; however, to cause a pandemic, the new virus subtype also must have the capacity to spread easily from person to person. Once a new pandemic influenza virus emerges and spreads, it usually becomes established among people and moves around or “circulates” for many years as seasonal epidemics of influenza. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have large surveillance programs to monitor and detect influenza activity around the world, including the emergence of possible pandemic strains of influenza virus.

Influenza Pandemics During the 20th Century

During the 20th century, the emergence of several new influenza A virus subtypes caused three pandemics, all of which spread around the world within a year of being detected.

  • 1918-19, “Spanish flu,” [A (H1N1)], caused the highest number of known influenza deaths. (However, the actual influenza virus subtype was not detected in the 1918-19 pandemic). More than 500,000 people died in the United States, and up to 50 million people may have died worldwide. Many people died within the first few days after infection, and others died of secondary complications. Nearly half of those who died were young, healthy adults. Influenza A (H1N1) viruses still circulate today after being introduced again into the human population in 1977.
  • 1957-58, “Asian flu,” [A (H2N2)], caused about 70,000 deaths in the United States. First identified in China in late February 1957, the Asian flu spread to the United States by June 1957.
  • 1968-69, “Hong Kong flu,” [A (H3N2)], caused about 34,000 deaths in the United States. This virus was first detected in Hong Kong in early 1968 and spread to the United States later that year. Influenza A (H3N2) viruses still circulate today.

Both the 1957-58 and 1968-69 pandemics were caused by viruses containing a combination of genes from a human influenza virus and an avian influenza virus. The 1918-19 pandemic virus appears to have an avian origin.

Vaccines to Protect Against Pandemic Influenza Viruses

A vaccine probably would not be available in the early stages of a pandemic. Scientists around the world work together when developing a new vaccine against influenza to select the virus strain that will offer the best protection against that virus. Manufacturers then use the selected strain to develop a vaccine. Once a potential pandemic strain of influenza virus is identified, it takes several months before a vaccine will be widely available. If a pandemic occurs, the U.S. government will work with many partner groups to make recommendations guiding the early use of available vaccine.

Antiviral Medications to Prevent and Treat Pandemic Influenza

Four different influenza antiviral medications (amantadine, rimantadine, oseltamivir, and zanamivir) are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment and/or prevention of influenza. All four usually work against influenza A viruses. However, the drugs may not always work, because influenza virus strains can become resistant to one or more of these medications. For example, analyses have shown that some of the 2004 H5N1 viruses isolated from poultry and humans in Southeast Asia are resistant to two of the medications for influenza (amantadine and rimantadine).

More recently, testing of seasonal influenza A (H3N2) isolates from people in the United States during the current influenza season (2005-06) has shown that a high percentage of circulating viruses are resistant to amantadine and rimantadine. As a result, on January 14, 2006 CDC issued a Health Alert Notice (HAN), recommending that neither amantadine nor rimantadine be used for the treatment or prevention (prophylaxis) of influenza A in the United States for the remainder of the 2005-06 influenza season. CDC and other public health agencies will continue to monitor both seasonal and avian influenza viruses for resistance to influenza antiviral medications

Preparing for the Next Pandemic

Because of these differences and the expected size of an influenza pandemic, it is important to plan preparedness activities that will permit a prompt and effective public health response. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) supports pandemic influenza activities in the areas of surveillance (detection), vaccine development and production, strategic stockpiling of antiviral medications, research, and risk communications.

In May 2005, the U.S. Secretary of HHS created a multi-agency National Influenza Pandemic Preparedness and Response Task Group. This unified initiative involves CDC and many other agencies (international, national, state, local and private) in planning for a potential pandemic. HHS has worked with organizations and professional associations at international, federal, state, and local levels to develop a comprehensive Pandemic Influenza Plan in conjunction with the President’s National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.

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