Considerable attention has been given recently to the prospect of an influenza pandemic sweeping the globe and causing serious illness and death. The following questions and answers will help give you a better understanding of what an influenza pandemic is and how Canada's preparing to respond to an outbreak.
A pandemic occurs when a specific influenza virus to which people have little or no immunity, spreads around the world to people from many different countries.
Seasonal influenza (flu) is a common infection of the airways and lungs that can spread easily among humans. In Canada, flu season usually runs from November to April. Although some changes in the genetic material of the seasonal flu may happen between seasons, they are not significant changes. The World Health Organization tracks and reports how these strains are circulating around the world. It also recommends what strains should be included in the annual seasonal flu vaccines based on this information.
Sometimes, however, the genetic material of influenza viruses can change or mutate, causing a new influenza strain to emerge. Since people have no immunity against the new strain, it can spread rapidly around the world, causing what is known as a pandemic. The pandemic influenza virus can cause severe complications, such as pneumonia and death in people who were otherwise healthy. For unknown reasons, influenza pandemics generally occur three to four times a century. The last four pandemics were in 1918-19, 1957-58, 1968-69, and most recently in 2009-10.
A vaccine for pandemic influenza can only be developed once the pandemic influenza virus is identified. The Canadian government has established contracts with vaccine manufacturers GlaxoSmithKline Inc. and Sanofi Pasteur Limited to ensure that Canadians will have rapid, assured and priority access to a supply of pandemic influenza vaccine produced in Canada, sufficient to meet requirements in the event of an influenza pandemic.
The seasonal influenza vaccine (flu shot) only covers the strains of human influenza that are expected to be in circulation during that year's flu season. While getting a flu shot each year is the most effective way to avoid getting seasonal flu, it is unlikely to provide adequate protection against any new pandemic influenza strain.
An influenza vaccine, whether is seasonal or pandemic, introduces either a portion of the virus, or a dead or weakened virus to your body. Once you receive the vaccine, your body quickly produces antibodies against the virus in the vaccine which will prevent you from getting sick or will help reduce the severity of your illness. These antibodies provide you with immunity against the virus, but they, and the protection they provide, will decrease over time. This, along with changing strains of influenza, is why people need to get their seasonal influenza vaccines every year. You cannot catch influenza from the vaccine. Influenza vaccines are usually in the form of an injection or “shot”, but depending on your age and other factors, they can also now be given through a spray that is given in your nose.
An antiviral is a prescription medicine that you take by swallowing a pill or liquid, or by breathing a powder through an inhaler. Antiviral medicine can be given to people when they are sick with influenza to reduce symptoms, to shorten the length of illness and to minimize serious complications. The drugs may also make a person less likely to spread influenza to others. They should be taken within two days of becoming sick to be effective.
Federal, provincial and territorial governments have established national stockpiles of antivirals that will be available if needed in the event of an influenza pandemic.
These stockpiled antivirals are held in each province and territory, ready for further distribution at the time of a pandemic. An additional federal government antiviral stockpile is available as a back-up to the provincial and territorial supplies.
Just as we do not know when the next pandemic will strike, we cannot predict how severe it will be in terms of the number of people who will become ill, require hospitalization or die; that will depend on the influenza strain that emerges, how easily it spreads, and which groups of people are affected. There are plans in place to gather this information early and rapidly when a new or pandemic influenza virus emerges.
Learning how to protect yourself and your family from seasonal influenza and putting this knowledge into practice is a good way to develop behaviours that will be useful in the event of a pandemic.
You can play an active role in staying healthy and preventing the spread of the flu virus. Follow these simple steps:
To learn more about protecting yourself and your family from seasonal influenza, visit www.fightflu.ca
The Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector created by federal, provincial and territorial officials, and more than 200 experts, explains how Canada will prepare for and respond to a pandemic influenza outbreak. The Plan was created for governmental departments of health, emergency workers, public health officials and health care workers. It includes an emergency response plan, along with guidelines and checklists. The Plan is available on The Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan website.
The goals of influenza pandemic preparedness and response are to minimize serious illness and overall deaths, as well as to minimize any social disruption among Canadians as a result of an influenza pandemic. It identifies, in particular, the prevention and preparedness activities that need to be addressed before a pandemic, such as surveillance, vaccine programs, antivirals, health services, public health measures and communications.
The Plan is updated as new information becomes available. The 2009 H1N1 influenza provided a real life pandemic response experience and the lessons learned from this experience will help strengthen pandemic planning preparedness in Canada.