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What does 'Influenza Pandemic' mean?

Health experts and governments round the world are worried that the flu virus H5N1 affecting birds(avian influenza or bird flu) could change into a virus that easily affects people. If this happens, and the new virus enters New Zealand, many of us could become very sick.

When a new flu virus infects many people around the world, it is called an influenza pandemic.


What causes Influenza Pandemics

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new strain of influenza virus emerges, spreading around the world and infecting many people in a very short time.

An influenza virus capable of causing a pandemic is one that people have no natural immunity to and can easily spread from person to person. It may cause severe disease.

An influenza pandemic could cause many deaths and could occur at any time. It could happen at any time of the year, not just winter.


How is pandemic influenza transmitted?

Primarily, human influenza is transmitted from person to person via virus-laden large droplets (particles >5 m in diameter), which are generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

These large droplets can then be directly deposited onto the mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract of susceptible people who are near the infected person (ie, within 1 metre).

Transmission may also occur through direct contact with infectious (wet) respiratory secretions, such as by touching door handles, taps, lift buttons, stairwell railings, keyboards, etc that have deposits of the infected secretions on their surfaces, and then hand-to-face contact.

There were three influenza pandemics last century, in 1918, 1956-57 and 1968. What caused them? All three pandemics last century were caused by different types of bird flu viruses.



What are the symptoms of an influenza pandemic?

The symptoms of pandemic influenza are the same as seasonal influenza.

This includes:

  • The sudden start of a high fever headache
  • muscle aches and pains
  • fatigue
  • cough
  • sore throat or
  • a runny nose

The virus can cause a mild or severe illness depending on the type of influenza virus and the age and general health of the person affected. It may take up to three days to show symptoms.