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Diseases A–Z

Pandemic flu (influenza pandemic)

A flu pandemic is an outbreak of a new kind of flu (influenza) that passes easily from one person to another around the world. This page explains what a flu pandemic is and how you can prepare for it.

Doctors say we’re in a worldwide flu pandemic — what does this mean?

Doctors at the World Health Organization (WHO) said on June 11 2009 that influenza A H1N1 (human swine flu) has become a flu pandemic.

This means that the WHO knows that this new strain of flu is passing easily from one person to another, on more than one continent. The WHO thinks the new strain of flu is likely to cause a lot of sickness and death worldwide. With this announcement of a flu pandemic, the WHO is asking governments around the world to follow their pandemic flu plans and asking vaccine companies to make flu shots to prevent this strain of flu.

What’s the difference between regular seasonal flu and pandemic flu?

Pandemic flu infects and kills many more people than regular seasonal flu.

Regular seasonal flu is common. It’s caused by older strains of flu that are already spreading among people. Different strains go around the world every year. People come into contact with different strains of seasonal flu viruses many times during their lives.

People who have gotten the flu shot are protected from some older flu strains. People who don’t have the flu shot may also have some natural defenses against older flu strains they’ve had before.

Regular seasonal flu can make healthy people sick, worsen long-term lung diseases like asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and it can kill people. Every year seasonal flu kills between 4000 and 8000 Canadians. Most people who die from seasonal flu are very old, very young, or have another health problem that makes them weak.

Regular seasonal flu is worrisome and should be taken seriously, but pandemic flu is more deadly than regular seasonal flu. It infects more people and kills more people than regular seasonal flu.

Why should I be concerned about pandemic flu? People die from seasonal flu every year — what’s the big deal about a flu pandemic?

It’s true that people die every year from seasonal flu. We should take seasonal flu seriously and get the seasonal flu shot every year to prevent it. But pandemic flu is even more dangerous than regular seasonal flu. With pandemic flu, doctors expect that 25-30% of the world’s population will get infected. With so many sick people, it’s likely that businesses, schools and other regular activities could be limited. In countries with good healthcare systems, hospitals and doctors could be very busy. In countries without a lot of doctors and hospitals, many more people could get very sick and die.

So far, the influenza A H1N1 virus (human swine flu) has killed many young and healthy people. This is also a concern. People who die from regular seasonal flu usually have weak immune systems. A flu pandemic that kills young healthy people could do more damage than one that only kills people with weak immune systems.

How would Canadians be affected if we had pandemic flu here?

The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that if Canada had a moderately severe pandemic and if people did not get antiviral medicines or a pandemic flu shot then: between 15 and 35 percent of Canadians could get sick; 34,000 to 138,000 people could be hospitalized; and 11,000 to 58,000 people could die.

How does pandemic flu spread?

Pandemic flu spreads the same way as other kinds of flu:

  • When people who have the flu speak, cough or sneeze, they spray tiny droplets in the air. If other people breathe in these droplets, or if the droplets land in their eyes, they can catch the flu.
  • When a person with the flu touches their eyes, mouth or nose, then touches another person (for example, by shaking hands), they can pass along flu germs. If you have flu germs on your hands and you touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can get infected with the flu.
  • If a person with the flu coughs or sneezes on something (a tissue, a door handle), and you touch that thing, then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can get infected with the flu.

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How can I help prevent pandemic flu and protect myself and my family from catching it?

Follow these steps to avoid catching any kind of flu, including the current pandemic flu, influenza A H1N1 (human swine flu):

  • Wash your hands properly and often. This page shows all the steps to proper hand washing.
  • If you aren't near a sink, use an alcohol-based cleaner to wash your hands. Use enough alcohol-based cleaner to keep your hands wet for a minimum of 20 seconds. Rub your hands together as the cleaner dries. Make sure you rub the cleaner all over your hands. Don't forget to rub between your fingers, the backs of your hands and under your fingernails.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Cough or sneeze into your sleeve, not your hand. If you cough up phlegm (mucus), spit it into a tissue, throw the tissue away, and wash your hands properly right away.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Stay at home if you are sick. If you have flu symptoms, call your doctor or health-care provider. Depending on your symptoms, they may tell you to stay home or to come to the clinic or hospital.
  • Use a regular household disinfectant to wash common surfaces every day. Make sure you wash:
    • counters, taps and sinks in your bathroom and kitchen
    • bedside tables
    • children's toys
    • computer keyboards
    • desks and tabletops
  • Wipe surfaces with paper towels that can be thrown away or cloth towels that can be washed afterwards. Use soap and water to clean the toys and objects that young children may put in their mouths.
  • Stay away from people who may be sick.
  • If possible, avoid crowded places.
  • Keep good airflow in your home by opening windows.
  • Stay healthy overall: get enough sleep, eat healthy food, exercise.

If you have a long-term lung disease like asthma or COPD, take extra steps to protect yourself.

What else should I do to prepare for pandemic flu?

It’s important to be prepared to keep yourself and your family safe and comfortable.

If a lot of people get sick from pandemic flu, some businesses might close or provide limited services because many workers would be sick or at home caring for family members. Grocery stores and drug stores might also have limited supplies. Schools and daycare centres may close.

There’s no need to panic, but it is important to have a plan to cope with a possible emergency. The Public Health Agency of Canada suggests that all Canadians take small steps now that will help them cope with a flu pandemic or any other emergency situation. Here are some things you can do:

More information on preparing for pandemic flu

Special advice on pandemic flu for people with long-term lung diseases like asthma and COPD

FAQs on pandemic flu from the Public Health Agency of Canada

Pandemic flu plans by Canada’s federal and provincial governments

More information on influenza A H1N1 (human swine flu)

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