A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak of a specific disease which affects a large proportion of the population. There is no influenza pandemic activity anywhere in the world at this time, but scientists agree there will be a global outbreak of influenza (flu) sooner or later.
The federal, provincial and municipal governments in Canada are working on pandemic preparedness, and many companies and health care facilities also have plans in place. Although there is no need to panic, it is a good idea for families to take small steps now that will help them respond, if necessary, to a flu pandemic, as well as other emergency situations.
People are exposed to different strains of influenza viruses many times during their lives. Even though the virus changes, a previous case of influenza may offer you some protection against infection caused by a similar strain of the virus. However, in the past it has been observed that three to four times each century, for unknown reasons, a radical change takes place in the influenza A virus, causing a new strain to emerge. A pandemic flu virus can emerge if an avian influenza (bird flu) virus mixes with a human flu virus or if an existing virus mutates, creating a new strain that can infect humans.
Since people have no immunity against the new strain, it can spread rapidly around the world, causing a pandemic. The last three influenza pandemics occurred in 1918-1919, 1957-58 and 1968-69. It is impossible to predict exactly when the next one will hit, but experts agree it is overdue.
The potential effects of pandemic influenza
It is very difficult to predict the impact of a pandemic, since no one knows how the virus would behave or how serious the pandemic would be. During a severe flu season, as many as 8,000 Canadians die from influenza and its complications; on average there are 4,000 deaths from annual flu. In a moderately severe pandemic, it is estimated that between 11,000 and 58,000 deaths may occur in Canada. These numbers are based on an assumption that the virus would cause illness in 15 to 35 per cent of the population.
In addition to deaths, a pandemic may cause significant illness and social disruption. It is important for Canadian families to plan ahead for a pandemic, because services provided by hospitals and clinics may be reduced or unavailable. Also, grocery stores and pharmacies may have limited supplies and banks may close.
Minimizing the risks
Flu prevention checklist
You can play an active role in staying healthy and preventing the spread of influenza, whether it's the seasonal flu that circulates each winter or pandemic influenza. Follow these simple steps:
- Get an annual flu shot
- Wash your hands frequently
- Cover up when you cough or sneeze
- Keep shared surface areas clean
- If you get sick, stay home!
- Talk about staying healthy. Encourage others to follow these simple steps. If you have children, be a good role model.
Pandemic influenza preparedness
To prepare for pandemic influenza, follow general emergency preparedness guidelines. This means having an emergency plan. You should also have an emergency kit with the right supplies to take care of your family, with no outside assistance, for at least 72 hours. The kit should contain food that will not spoil, a can opener, water, medications and first aid supplies, as well as matches, a flashlight, a battery-operated radio, extra batteries, some cash, etc.
Create a store of emergency supplies
In the event of a flu pandemic, some day-to-day services may be disrupted including those provided by health care facilities, banks, stores (e.g. grocery stores and pharmacies), restaurants and government offices. Stockpiling essential supplies for you and your family is a good way to prepare for this possibility.
Pandemic flu planning checklist
When it comes to pandemic flu, it can never be too early to plan ahead for your personal health and safety. The following checklist can help individuals and families to prepare for a possible flu pandemic or other emergency situations. The list provides examples of non-perishable food items, health supplies and other items you should have in your home in the event of a flu pandemic.
- Food and water
- Bottled water - at least two litres of water per person per day
- Ready-to-eat canned meats
- Canned fruit
- Dried fruit
- Canned vegetables
- Protein bars
- Dry cereal/granola
- Peanut butter/nuts
- Canned juices
- Tetra-packed milk or soy beverage
- Pain relievers/fever reducers (e.g. acetaminophen, ibuprofen)
- Stomach remedies
- Cough and cold medicine
- Anti-diarrhea medication
- Fluids with salt and sugar
- Prescribed medical supplies such as glucose and blood-pressure monitoring equipment
- Equipment for persons with disabilities
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Battery powered or wind-up radio
- Manual can opener
- Garbage bags
- Toilet paper
- Candles and matches or lighter
- General first aid kit
- Extra keys for car and house
- Cash and change for payphones
- If applicable:
- Canned or jarred baby food/formula
- Pet food and water
- Feminine hygiene products
- Disposable diapers
- Diaper wipes (in the event of a water shortage)
- Keep prescription medications filled. If you or anyone else in your household takes prescription medication, don't wait until it is finished to order more. Try to keep at least one month's supply on hand at all times.
- Discuss care options with family members and other loved ones. If you will be bringing others into your home to care for them in the event of a flu pandemic, discuss what health supplies, special foods or other items they require. Add those items to your emergency supply list.
- Fill out an Emergency Health Information sheet. Include blood type, allergies, pre-existing medical conditions and a list of current medications (type and dose) for each member of your household.
Consult the Federal website for more information on how to protect yourself and your family in the event of a pandemic influenza: www.influenza.gc.ca