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What is pandemic influenza?

An influenza, or “flu” pandemic is a global outbreak of disease that occurs when a new influenza A virus appears or "emerges" in the human population, causes serious illness, and then spreads easily from person to person worldwide. 

More people get sick because they have never been exposed to this virus before and their bodies cannot fight it off. This allows the virus to spread widely and cause illness among many people creating what is called a pandemic.  The symptoms of pandemic flu are similar to those of seasonal flu, but can be more severe. New pandemic viruses often begin with a bird virus or other animal viruses. The most recent pandemic orginated from a swine influenza virus and as a result was initially called the "swine flu". Animal viruses do not usually spread easily among people, but they can develop new characteristics that allow them to do so. This is more likely to happen when animals and humans live in close proximity to each other.

Following are key facts about pandemic flu:

  • Pandemic flu usually starts with a new flu virus (typically an animal flu virus like the bird or swine flus). 
  • It causes a worldwide outbreak of serious illness that spreads from person to person. 
  • When a flu pandemic occurs, as many as one in every four people can get sick. 
  • Initially, no vaccine is available for pandemic flu – because no one can predict which virus will cause a pandemic. 
  • Once researchers know which virus is causing the pandemic, it may take about 6 months or longer to produce vaccine. 

Follow this link to learn more about the recent 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic and its effects on Santa Barbara County.

What is the difference between pandemic influenza and seasonal influenza?

Annual outbreaks of the seasonal flu are caused by influenza viruses that are already in existence among people, whereas pandemic outbreaks are caused by new virus subtypes that have never circulated (spread) among people or that have not circulated among people for a long time. Past influenza pandemics have led to high levels of illness, death, social disruption, and economic loss.

Follow this link for more information on seasonal influenza and the importance of annual seasonal flu vaccination.

What can I do to prepare for pandemic influenza?

There are many things you can do to prepare for pandemic influenza and reduce your risk. Fortunately, these actions are similar to those recommended for any potential public health emergency and include the following steps:

  • Get educated 
  • Protect your health 
  • Develop preparedness plans 

Get educated. Read about pandemic influenza from official sources and pay attention to stories in the media. Local officials will work with the media to deliver important messages to the public about any local health issues.

Protect your health. To defend yourself against illness, implement the following practices:

  1. Wash your hands often with soap and warm water; 
  2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth as much as possible; 
  3. Stay away from people who are sick; 
  4. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when coughing or sneezing; 
  5. Get regular exercise, enough rest and eat healthy well-balanced meals. 

The CDC offers additional information on Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School.

Develop preparedness plans. According to the federal government, "a pandemic is likely to be a prolonged and widespread outbreak that could require temporary changes in many areas of society, such as schools, work, transportation, and other public services. An informed and prepared public can take appropriate actions to decrease their risk during a pandemic." Develop a plan for you and your family. (Source:, Accessed May 17, 2010)

During a pandemic, what precautions can I take to avoid the spread of influenza?

The same measures outlined above (get educated, protect your health, and develop preparedness plans) are the same as those necessary to prevent its spread. As with other infectious illnesses, one of the most important preventive practices is careful and frequent hand washing. Cleaning your hands often, especially after sneezing or coughing, using soap and water, or applying waterless alcohol-based hand rubs removes potentially infectious materials from your skin and helps prevent the spread of diseases.

 Additional Information on Pandemic Influenza

For more information of pandemic influenza, send us an email at or follow us on Twitter at SBCPublicHealth