With or Without Pandemic, Flu Is a Serious Health Threat
About as many Americans die of influenza each year as are killed by breast cancer. But only with some unusual event, the movement of the so-called bird flu or a shortage of vaccine, does the public typically take notice.
The flu is not just an aggressive form of the common cold. Even in an ordinary year, millions spend several days bedridden with aches, fever and coughing.
"We have 36,000 people in the U.S. dying every year of flu, but we have millions of people who get infected with the flu, and therefore it's both a minor problem and a major problem," said Arnold Monto, M.D., professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and an internationally known flu expert.
Many of us refer to the flu as though it's a single virus, but it is actually several different types and subtypes of related viruses that undergo constant genetic changes. These changes are why you need a new shot every year.
Every few years, one of these flu bugs makes a major genetic leap and becomes a form of flu no human immune system has ever encountered and for which there are no known vaccines.
The virus the world flu experts are watching right now is called H5N1 influenza, known informally as avian flu or bird flu. If the flu bugs we see in a regular year are handguns, H5N1 is an AK-47.
H5N1 has killed about 60 percent to 70 percent of those who've been infected in Asia, and birds carrying the virus have recently been found in Romania and Turkey, showing it's moving west.
"This is a severe disease. It is not typical flu. It starts out with pneumonia, whereas in many cases flu may develop into pneumonia but most of the time it doesn't," Monto said. It also moves throughout the body's organs and becomes what's known as a systemic infection.
"What we're concerned about is the potential that this virus can change in one way or another and become able to transmit from person to person," Monto said. Most of those who have contracted H5N1 have gotten it from infected birds, not from other people.
"Even if this doesn't occur, we're long overdue for a pandemic," Monto said. "We all know the lessons of not being prepared and we have to prepare and be ready for this because even if this is not the virus that starts causing the pandemic, another one will."
When disease is widespread in several countries it is called a pandemic