An influenza pandemic occurs when a new strain of flu virus emerges and spreads around the world, infecting many people simultaneously.
People have no natural immunity to a pandemic flu virus, so it spreads readily from person to person. It's a much more serious disease than a common cold, and people can become very ill for up to 10 days.
Flu symptoms include a high fever, headache, muscle aches and pains, fatigue, a cough and a sore throat. Having come in contact with flu, it may be three days before a person feels symptoms (the incubation period).
Being fit, active and healthy is no protection - anyone can go down with a flu virus. Every year, more than 100 New Zealanders die of flu or its complications, some of them some fit young people.
A pandemic event could affect up to a third of the population, disrupting workplaces, schools, hospitals and many other services. Some workplaces and schools might close. Accessing normal health and other services may not be possible for several weeks and people could be asked to care for themselves and others at home.
There have been four flu pandemics over the last century - in 1918, 1957/58, 1968/69 and 2009.
The 1918 pandemic was the most significant, sweeping through New Zealand with grim results. Known as the 'Spanish Flu' (although the infection didn't begin in Spain), it was a worldwide catastrophe. An estimated 720 million people were affected in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia, and the death toll reached 21 million.
Over the summer months of 1918–19, it resulted in the deaths of more than 8500 New Zealanders - 6413 Europeans and more than 2160 Maori. The disease spread rapidly in urban areas - Auckland City recorded 1163 deaths and Wellington 773. In a matter of months, the Spanish flu claimed more lives than those lost from flu and associated ailments in the preceding 46 years. People became unwell very quickly, sometimes collapsing within a matter of hours and even dying the same day. Flu vaccinations and antibiotics had not been developed to help those who fell ill.
In Hawke’s Bay, it's estimated 352 people died of the disease.
In May 1957, the first influenza pandemic since the Great Flu of 1918 emerged in China. Known as the Asian Flu, it spread worldwide within a year. Infection rates ranged from 20-70 percent but fatalities were relatively low - from 1 in 2000-10,000 infections. In New Zealand, the pandemic started in Wellington in August 1957. Most at risk were people aged from 10-30 years. A second wave hit in late 1959.
The pandemic that broke out in July 1968 was known as the Hong Kong flu. Again, it is thought to have originated in China. This flu reached New Zealand in early 1969. Sporadic cases were reported during summer and autumn and by June and July it reached pandemic levels. This event was milder than 1918, causing around a million deaths worldwide.
The most recent and still ongoing pandemic started in 2009, reaching its peak in June/July. Known as the Influenza A (H1N1) 09 Swine Flu, the first human-to-human transition was in Mexico. By the end of the year, there were 1059 confirmed cases of H1N1 virus in New Zealand - with 90 of these cases reported in Hawke’s Bay. The number of deaths attributed to the swine flu as at November 2009 was 19.
For information on how to prepare for the Influenza A (H1N1) 09 Swine Flu go to www.moh.govt.nz/influenza-a-h1n1 or for free 24 hours, seven days a week advice call the Ministry of Health’s Healthline 0800 611 116.
What can you do to prevent getting the flu?
Every year, ask your doctor to vaccinate you against the flu. Because the flu virus changes frequently, you need to get vaccinated annually to maintain immunity.
For some people, this can be done at no cost. Vaccination is free for people aged 65 years and over, and for adults and children with certain long-term (chronic) conditions. Your general practitioner (GP) will know if you are eligible for a free vaccination.
How can you prepare for a flu pandemic?
Read the information on the Ministry of Health website: www.moh.govt.nz/pandemicinfluenza
Pandemic Influenza is Different from the Common Cold
Who is the Lead Agency during a Pandemic
Potential Impact on Society
What are Your Personal Responsibilities?
Basic Infection Control Principles