Pandemic influenza – Common questions

  1. How is pandemic influenza different from seasonal influenza?
  2. Is there a vaccine available for protection against pandemic influenza?
  3. What are antiviral drugs?
  4. How will pandemic influenza affect Alberta?
  5. Is Alberta ready for a pandemic?
  6. What should you do during a pandemic?
  7. How can individuals and families prepare for a pandemic?
  8. How can businesses prepare for a pandemic?

1. How is pandemic influenza different from seasonal influenza?

Seasonal influenza

  • Seasonal influenza virus strains constantly change and continually circulate in every part of the world, typically resulting in local outbreaks of influenza A and B.
  • In North America, seasonal influenza usually affects people in the fall and winter.
  • Even though the virus may change slightly from year to year, most people will continue to have some protection against slightly changed viruses, particularly if they are immunized yearly for seasonal influenza.

Pandemic influenza

  • Pandemic influenza is a global epidemic that can happen at any time of the year. It typically occurs 3–4 times each century when a completely new strain of influenza type A virus emerges. 
  • People generally do not have any natural immunity, that is, protection against a pandemic virus. 
  • If this new virus spreads easily from person to person, it could quickly travel around the world. 
  • Pandemic influenza differs from seasonal influenza in that everyone is at risk of infection with the new strain and larger numbers of people catch it. 
  •  Current vaccines for seasonal influenza will not offer protection against pandemic influenza and need to be developed to target the specific virus. 
  • In the 20th century there were 3 pandemics: 1918–19, 1957–58 and 1968–69; and one in the 21st Century: 2009–2010.
  • Read more about pandemic history

2. Is there a vaccine available for protection against pandemic influenza?

Vaccines are the first line of defense against a pandemic, but it could take at least six months to produce the vaccine for a new virus. This complex process cannot begin until the pandemic begins and the new virus has been identified.

Canada is one of the few countries in the world prepared to have a vaccine manufacturer develop and supply a pandemic influenza vaccine as soon as a new strain is identified. The manufacturer will be able to produce enough vaccine for all Canadians.

Until a pandemic vaccine is available, the best way to prevent getting influenza is by:

  • Cleaning your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand santizer;
  • Keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth; and
  • Avoiding close contact (within two meters) with people who have influenza-like symptoms.

Once the vaccine is available, Alberta Health Services will implement the immunization program according to policy set by Alberta Health and work in collaboration with municipal authorities to identify sites to provide pandemic influenza immunization to Albertans.

3. What are antiviral drugs?

Antiviral drugs are medications used for early treatment of severe cases of influenza. It is not typically recommended for treatment of mild influenza unless individuals are part of a group identified at higher risk of severe infection. If taken shortly after getting sick (within 48 hours), they can reduce influenza symptoms, shorten the length of illness, reduce the serious complications of influenza and minimize the spread of disease.

  • Antiviral drugs work by reducing the ability of the virus to reproduce but do not provide immunity against the virus. Antiviral drugs include oseltamivir (Tamilflu®) and zanamivir (Relenza®).

Each province and territory, maintains their own portion of the national antiviral stockpile, established in 2004, to ensure equitable access across Canada to a secure supply of antivirals for pandemic influenza. At the time of an outbreak, the delivery and administration of these antivirals will be considered based on a risk assessment of the specific virus, the situation and the emerging epidemiology or other data, such as antiviral resistance or optimal treatment course.

4. How will pandemic influenza affect Alberta?

The impact of pandemic influenza depends on the influenza strain, how easily it spreads, which groups of people are the most affected and how effectively we respond.

In the Alberta’s Pandemic Influenza Plan 2014 (APIP), multiple planning scenarios are used to identify probable implications associated with varying pandemic influenza impact levels on the population and on the health system. Alberta uses the same 4 pandemic planning impact scenarios used in the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan (CPIP) to reflect varying transmissibility and virulence characteristics.

Planning scenarios are not predictions and will be replaced with evidence when a pandemic occurs. The basic scenarios cannot incorporate all potential factors that can affect the impact of a pandemic. Some factors are population-wide and could affect all scenarios, such as seasonality, pre-existing immunity or antiviral resistance, whereas others may be setting-specific, such as the effects on a remote community.

5. Is Alberta ready for a pandemic?

The Government of Alberta has been preparing the health system and the province for an influenza pandemic since 1999. APIP is a provincial strategic plan developed jointly by Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and involves a range of partners.

The goal of Alberta’s plan is to control the spread of influenza disease, reduce illness and death due to influenza, minimize disruptions to the daily life of Albertans, minimize economic impacts of influenza and support an efficient and effective use of resources during response and recovery.

6. What should you do during a pandemic?

Be alert to information on radio, television, in newspapers, or the Internet and elsewhere. Information will be posted on the Alberta HealthAlberta Heath Services and Alberta Emergency Management Agency websites.

Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services will advise you about the steps you can take to avoid disease, availability of vaccine and antiviral drugs, and any changes that may be made in health-care services to deal with the pandemic.

7. How can individuals and families prepare for a pandemic?

Staying informed and understanding the potential challenges you may face in your community in the event of an influenza pandemic can help you to prepare for a variety of scenarios. Albertans can prepare for a pandemic influenza just like they would for other emergencies by preparing a basic emergency kit to be self-sufficient for 72 hours.

8. How can businesses prepare for a pandemic?

A pandemic may also affect businesses. Staff may be sick or may need to stay home to care for family members who are ill. Depending on the nature of services or products offered by the business, the demands for services and goods may increase dramatically placing additional pressure on businesses already coping with increased absenteeism due to the pandemic.

Alternatively, a business could suffer a negative economic impact due to the reduced number of customers. Businesses need to consider the impact of a pandemic on their staff and customers and make appropriate plans.