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About Pandemic Flu

A flu pandemic occurs when a new flu virus spreads to people all over the world. The last pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 virus (known as swine flu), ended in August 2010. Learn more about the history of pandemics.

Seasonal flu vs. pandemic flu

Pandemic flu is not the same as seasonal flu. Every year people get sick from seasonal flu. Getting a flu shot or the nasal spray each year is the best way to protect yourself from seasonal flu.

Seasonal Flu Pandemic Flu

Outbreaks occur each year, mostly in winter.

Outbreaks do not happen often (only three times in the 20th century) and can occur at any time of the year.

The viruses that cause seasonal flu are like the ones from the past few years. That’s why many people can fight off the illness.

Because the virus is new, many more people are likely to get sick after being exposed.

Not all people who get sick will need to go to the hospital, so there is space for those who are really sick.

So many people will get sick that hospitals and health care providers may not be able to handle all the people who need care.

Typically impacts infants, the elderly and those with serious health conditions the most, but it can also be deadly for young otherwise healthy people.

People of any age and even healthy people could get very ill.

A flu vaccine (flu shot or nasal spray) is made each year to prevent the spread of seasonal flu.

A vaccine for pandemic flu may not be available when pandemic flu first breaks out. It may take 4 to 6 months to make the first doses of pandemic-specific vaccine.

Symptoms include:

  • Fever (usually high)
  • Headache
  • Tiredness (can be extreme)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Diarrhea (more in children)

Pandemic flu symptoms may be similar to seasonal flu, but they may be worse and new symptoms could occur.

A person can start to spread seasonal flu to others about 1 day before they feel sick, and up to 5 days after becoming sick.

Pandemic flu will likely spread similar to seasonal flu, but scientists will investigate how new strains of flu virus spread.

How pandemic flu spreads

Pandemic flu may spread the same way as seasonal flu, but we will not know until it happens.

When a person with pandemic flu sneezes, coughs, talks or laughs the pandemic flu virus can spread into the air as droplets. The droplets can spread to people and surfaces up to 6 feet away.

The pandemic flu virus can spread to your hands if you touch anything that has the virus on it. If you then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you might get pandemic flu.

Learn how to help stop the spread of pandemic flu.

Potential impact of pandemic flu

A pandemic could change our communities in many ways.

  • Waves of pandemic flu may occur in communities for 6-8 weeks, then occur again months later
  • The country and the world could be affected for 1 to 2 years
  • 3 or more in every 10 people could become ill
  • 4 out of every 10 workers may miss work due to their own illness, caring for family or other reasons
  • Schools may be dismissed for weeks
  • Public gatherings (sports, concerts, movies) may be canceled
  • Public transportation could be limited
  • Businesses and public services may close or limit hours
  • People with flu symptoms may be asked to stay home or away from others while ill
  • Those exposed to illness may be asked to stay away from others until any threat of illness has passed

VA, all levels of government and others are taking steps to plan and prepare for pandemic flu. Read VA’s pandemic influenza plan.

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