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Pandemic - Just What Does That Mean?

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Compared to a normal winter that is a very small number of cases, in fact tens of thousands of Americans die every year from the normal flu, so just why is everyone getting excited and what the heck is this "Pandemic" which is getting so much attention.

There is a big difference between a regular flu season and a flu "pandemic" but that doesn't mean that a pandemic will necessarily be more deadly.

Defining an outbreak as a pandemic means it is widespread, is a new strain which people don't have normal immune responses for, AND it can be easily passed between people.

It doesn't mean it has a high mortality (death) rate or is even as deadly as the usual yearly flu we are all familiar with.

According to the WHO position paper on Pandemic Preparedness.

"An influenza pandemic occurs with the appearance of a new influenza virus against which none of us has any immunity. This results in several, simultaneous epidemics worldwide with high numbers of cases and deaths. With the increase in global transport and communications, as well as urbanization and overcrowded conditions, epidemics due to the new influenza virus are likely to be established quickly around the world."

The last major flu pandemic was in 1968.

The fact that the WHO representatives are saying privately that they expect to declare a Phase 6 alert, which is a pandemic, doesn't mean everyone should hide under the bed - it just signals that various pre-set actions should be taken to prepare for a large number of cases.

The various alert levels (we are currently at Phase 5) are intended to trigger a specific set of actions by governments, drug companies, and health care organizations; they aren't intended to scare individuals.

Designating a flu strain a "pandemic" does not necessarily mean that there will be a large number of deaths.

The fear being expressed in blogs, on twitter and in various Internet discussion groups that governments will require people to get some vaccination to stop the spread of swine flu is misplaced at this time since there IS NO vaccine for the current virus.

It is likely that national and regional governments are going to impose some travel restrictions and this is already happening in some limited circumstances.

You can find the basic steps likely to be taken in the WHO pandemic warning scale at
http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/phase/en/.

Here is the WHO explanation for Levels 5 and 6:

"Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is characterized by community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5. Designation of this phase will indicate that a global pandemic is under way."

These designations do not depend on any particular level of mortality; they simply refer to how widespread the influenza is and how fast it is spreading.

The latest information from the WHO regarding what should be done to mitigate a pandemic is at http://www.who.int/csr/disease/influenza/pandemic/en/index.html.

In addition to decades as a science reporter, John A. McCormick has worked for years as a local emergency management coordinator (now retired) and has advised facilities and municipalities on preparations for a flu pandemic.

He also maintains a medical information Web site certified by HON, Healthcare on the Net (an NGO affiliate of the WHO in Geneva) as providing unbiased and accurate medical information.

HON verification status for New Medicine Online.

HON was developed to provide assurance of the quality of online medical information given by independent sources.

"The Health On the Net Foundation (HON) promotes and guides the deployment of useful and reliable online health information, and its appropriate and efficient use. Created in 1995, HON is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, accredited to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. For twelve years, HON has focused on the essential question of the provision of health information to citizens, information that respects ethical standards. To cope with the unprecedented volume of healthcare information available on the Net, the HONcode of conduct offers a multi-stakeholder consensus on standards to protect citizens from misleading health information."

John McCormick is a reporter, /science/medical columnist and finance and social commentator, with 17,000+ bylined stories. Contact John through NewsBlaze.

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