Epidemics / Pandemics

What Makes a Flu “Pandemic?”

The term pandemic comes from a Greek word, meaning “all of the people.” A flu pandemic happens when a disease spreads quickly across many communities and around the world.

Specifically, three things need to happen for a flu pandemic to start:

  • First, it takes a new and unusual type of flu virus. Flu viruses are always changing. That’s why we need the seasonal flu shot every year to match the latest viruses. Our immune systems can handle most of those viral changes, but every now and then the virus makes a big change that our bodies cannot handle.
  • Second, the new virus must be able to make people really sick. Sick enough to keep us in bed for several days - enough to weaken our bodies, so that other diseases, like pneumonia, can invade. The 1918 virus was so strong that it killed millions of otherwise perfectly healthy young men and women. Soldiers in top shape had some of the highest death rates in the country.
  • Third, the new flu virus must be able to spread easily between people. When a sick person coughs or sneezes, droplets that contain the flu virus fall up to six feet away. Everything the virus touches becomes contaminated. By spreading from person to person, a virus can move dangerously fast. Through airline passengers, for example, a virus could spread from one city to five continents in hours.

How long does a flu pandemic last?

During a pandemic, the flu virus may travel the world two or three times in 18 months, in waves that last two to three months in each community. In the United States alone, millions of people could get sick, many at the same time.

What about a vaccine?

At the beginning of a pandemic, we won’t have a vaccine to protect us like we do with the seasonal flu. With current technology, it takes six to nine months to produce a flu vaccine. By then, millions of people could be sick. Even when the new vaccine becomes available, we won’t be able to make it fast enough to protect everyone at the same time.

What to expect in a flu pandemic

Unlike the seasonal flu, which arrives with cold weather every year, flu pandemics don’t happen that often. And no one can predict when the next flu pandemic will arrive or how severe it will be. In the last century, for example, there were three: in 1918, 1957 and 1968.

Here’s an idea of what could happen:

  • More than 50 million people could get sick in less than a year. In New Jersey alone, 2.5 million people could catch the flu. That’s almost one out of every three people in the state - enough to fill Giants Stadium 31 times.
  • There could be crippling shortages of hospital beds, doctors, nurses, medicine and even caskets. In 1918, hospitals hired armed guards to protect doctors and nurses from people trying to force their way in.
  • Schools and day care centers may close for weeks at a time. We’re used to schools closing for a few days because of a snowstorm or a hurricane. But in a pandemic, parents may need to find child care for up to two months during each wave.
  • Half of all workers could be sick, at home caring for loved ones, or staying home to avoid getting sick. The lack of staff could force thousands of businesses to close, putting millions of people out of work. Unemployment could reach levels we have not seen since the Great Depression.
  • Services we count on may not be available. Up to half of all police, fire fighters, ambulance drivers, utility workers, even grave diggers may be unable or unwilling to work as scheduled. Food may not be delivered. ATM machines may not get restocked with money.
  • The government could use emergency laws to prevent people from gathering at places like restaurants, houses of worship or movie theaters. The government could also limit travel to reduce the spread of the flu.

Read the rest of this handout from the State of New Jersey.

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New Jersey Resources