The Risk of an Influenza Pandemic

Article published on 13th May 2008

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In our last article we mentioned plans to protect the income of GP's and when, they need to suspend their usual practice in order to combat an influenza pandemic. In this article we are going to look at the risks of such a pandemic and why we must all take care to prepare for it - without getting paranoid of course!

According to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) an influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity, resulting in several, simultaneous epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illness. Worryingly, the WHO also believes that it is more a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ a new influenza pandemic emerges and it has a programme in place that watches for new influenza outbreaks and actively prepares for the next pandemic.

The greatest influenza pandemic in the 20th Century happened between 1918 and 1919, causing around 50 million deaths worldwide. Although healthcare and its provision have improved markedly over the last 80 years, the epidemiological models used by the WHO project that even in the event of a new pandemic we would still face up to 7.4 million deaths globally.

Even in affluent countries with a generally high level of healthcare and access to treatments, the projections indicate that there would be a demand for 134-233 million outpatient visits and 1.5-5.2 million hospital admissions if a pandemic were to hit. However, as is ever the case, the next pandemic will hit the citizens of poorer countries worst of all because, according to the WHO, “of different population characteristics and the already strained health care resources.”

What the WHO expects if an influenza pandemic arises:

  1. High level of global traffic will spread the pandemic virus rapidly, leaving little or no time to prepare for it.
  2. It will take several months before any vaccine can be developed and then manufactured to the quantities needed for widespread distribution. Even then, such will be demands for them, any vaccine or antiviral agents and antibiotics to treat secondary infections will be in short supply and will be unequally distributed.
  3. Hospitals and clinics will be overwhelmed.
  4. Widespread illness may result in a sudden and potentially significant shortage of personnel providing essential community services, so there may be knock on social effects from a pandemic including a potential rise in criminality and restricted access.
  5. The effect of the influenza pandemic will be relatively prolonged when compared to other natural disasters, like earthquakes or whatever, as it is expected that outbreaks will reoccur and the virus may mutate.

So, alarming stuff, but don't panic. Living a healthy lifestyle and assuring that your healthcare and income are adequately protected against the unexpected will help if the worst happens, which, fingers crossed, it won't any time soon.

The WHO manage an international programme to link up efforts to combat a pandemic if it emerges, but the British Government also has long standing and evolving plans of its own. Details of the UK's plans and defences can be found here: www.advisorybodies.doh.gov.uk.

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