Pandemic Flu: Questions and Answers

What is pandemic flu?

A pandemic is an outbreak of a disease in many countries at the same time. A pandemic of influenza—or flu—occurs when a new flu virus rapidly spreads from country to country around the world. Pandemic flu spreads quickly because people are not immune to the new flu virus, and it can take months to develop an effective vaccine.

Pandemics are not just particularly bad flu seasons. In fact, they are not seasonal at all; they can happen anytime.

What is the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic?

An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease that occurs in one or several limited areas, like a city, state, or country.

An epidemic becomes a pandemic if the disease spreads beyond the borders of several countries and affects many countries across the globe. The most recent example of a flu pandemic is the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic that began in early 2009 and lasted through mid-2010. The largest pandemic in the 20th century took place in 1918. It was responsible for at least 500,000 deaths in the United States and an estimated 10 million deaths worldwide.

What are some of the steps government officials could take to slow the spread of the flu during a pandemic?

State or local government officials may try several measures to slow the spread of the flu, including:

  • Canceling or limiting public gatherings such as concerts, meetings and church services.
  • Closing schools, theaters and other places where large numbers of people gather.
  • Requesting that people who have the flu stay home or at a healthcare facility. (This is called isolation.)
  • Requesting that people who have been exposed to the flu virus stay at home and avoid contact with others. (This is called quarantine.)
  • Asking everyone to stay home for a period of time. This is sometimes compared to a “snow day”—a day when regular activities are suspended due to bad weather.

What are some of the steps I can take to prepare for a pandemic?

  • Stock a week's worth of food, water, medications and other supplies for each family member. This is the minimum amount you will need. However, a flu pandemic could last for months and supplies from stores and other sources may be limited for much of that time. If you can store more than one week of supplies, we encourage you to do so. Remember your pets when stocking your supplies.
  • Make a plan. Establish a point of contact away from your home for connecting with family members. Think about who will take care of children if they can't go to school.

    See our brochure to find out more about preparing for a pandemic.

How quickly can vaccine be made for use in a pandemic?

Experts will need to study the new virus to obtain enough information to make an effective vaccine. Making a vaccine is a labor intensive, time consuming process. Once a pandemic virus is identified, it can take six months to produce an effective vaccine. Even at that point, supplies will likely be very limited.

The federal government is funding research to find faster ways to produce vaccine. They are also working with vaccine suppliers to arrange production and distribution of vaccine in an emergency.

Will currently available medications be helpful during a pandemic?

Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza can prevent or reduce the severity and length of illness caused by flu. They are most effective when taken within 48 hours o the first flu symptoms.

Antiviral drugs may or may not work for a new virus that causes a flu pandemic. Unfortunately—as with vaccine—we won't know what medications are effective in fighting the virus until a specific virus is identified.

It is also possible for a virus to become resistant to an antiviral over time.

Scientists are working to find new antiviral drugs and government is working to increase the supply of existing antiviral drugs.

Can a mask protect me from a flu virus?

There are other good ways to avoid getting and spreading the flu. Flu spreads from one person to another through droplets from coughing and sneezing. If no vaccine is available, the best way to avoid getting the flu is to avoid crowded conditions and close contact with others during flu season. It is also important to wash your hands often, particularly after coughing if you are sick or before touching your face. Stay home if you are coughing or sneezing, or if you might be coming down with the flu.

We don't know if wearing a mask will help. There is very little research about using masks to prevent flu. Masks are probably most useful when worn by sick people to keep their sneezes and coughs from infecting others.

During a flu pandemic (outbreak) you may want to wear a mask when you are in crowded settings. A mask may protect you from other people's coughs and make it more difficult for you to cough on others.

If you are taking care of a person with the flu at home you may want to wear a mask or respirator. Respirators include thicker fiber masks often worn by nurses or construction workers. One commonly used respirator is an N-95 mask.

Using a mask can present some problems. You risk being infected by your mask if you do not handle it very carefully. Masks may become contaminated on the outside by sneezing or coughing droplets from others. Touching your eyes, nose or mouth while adjusting or changing the mask can infect you with the flu. Masks need to be discarded carefully to keep from spreading infection. N-95 masks need to fit closely on the face to work properly.

Although they keep sick people from spreading disease, masks are not entirely effective. Do not rely on masks alone for protection during a pandemic. Masks may reduce the spread of flu if you also avoid crowds or gatherings, stay home when you are sick, cover your cough and wash your hands often.

How will I be alerted about a health emergency? What about other languages and translations?

Government agencies will keep the public informed through television, radio, newspapers and the Internet. Telephone information lines will also be available on a limited basis.

The Washington State Department of Health and its partners will work to provide information in languages other than English. Many materials on preparing for pandemic influenza are now available on the Department of Health's website in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Cambodian and Russian. For a list of resources visit emergency preparedness Fact Sheet page.

Will there be enough anti-viral drugs and vaccines for everyone during a pandemic? How will the distribution be prioritized?

The federal government is working to develop faster and more effective ways of making enough vaccine for everyone in a pandemic. However, currently it can take as long as six months to produce an effective vaccine once a virus is identified and even then supplies may be limited.

Local governments have plans for distributing vaccines and medicines. These plans may vary from one community to another. With limited supplies, it is very likely people who are ill will be the first priority for receiving medications. Also, it may be necessary to give vaccine and medicines first to community members who provide essential services to the public such as healthcare personnel, emergency responders and police.

A pandemic will most likely be caused by a new virus, so antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza may not be helpful. As with vaccine, we won't know what medications will fight the virus until a specific pandemic virus is identified. The federal government and some local governments are stockpiling antiviral drugs, but supplies are limited.

What is the Department of Health doing to prepare for pandemic flu?

The Department of Health—working with local, state, federal and Canadian partners—has been planning for a potential pandemic flu outbreak and taking action to help protect the health of people in our state.

Will a yearly flu shot protect me from avian flu?

No. The flu shot available each year only protects you from that season's flu. There is currently no vaccine for avian flu. A seasonal flu shot is still a good idea, though, and should be part of everyone's personal health plan. For other ideas on staying healthy, see the Washington State Department of Health's Preventing the Spread of Germs fact sheet.

Is it safe to eat chicken, turkey and eggs?

Yes. Currently there are no reported poultry flocks in the U.S. infected with avian flu. Poultry is safe to eat. You can make sure poultry is safe to eat by cooking it to an internal temperature of 165 °F (check the temperature with a cooking thermometer). This kills all bacteria and viruses including the avian influenza virus. Always use safe preparation and cooking procedures when handling and cooking poultry. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands after handling any uncooked meat.

For more information: the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife monitors wild birds in our state, and the Department of Agriculture monitors U.S. birds in the farming and poultry industries.

Where can I get more information?