A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. Pandemic influenza is flu that causes a global outbreak of serious illness that spreads easily from person to person.
Three or four times a century, a radical change occurs in the genetic make-up of the influenza A virus and a new strain of the virus, suddenly appears.
As a result, the protection and immunity that people have developed against influenza may not protect them from this new strain. When this happens, everyone would be susceptible to infection and would be at greater risk of developing severe complications like pneumonia. The virus may even spread rapidly around the world, causing an influenza pandemic.
The frequency of pandemics is unpredictable, but most experts agree that another one is likely to occur within the next 5 to 10 years. This is based on the historical patterns of pandemics - the average time elapsed between each of the last four pandemics was 25 years. It has been over 30 years since the last pandemic.
Birds and other animals, including pigs, also contract and transmit influenza. Wild birds, in particular, are natural carriers of influenza A viruses. They have carried animal influenza viruses, with no apparent harm, for centuries. Migratory waterfowl (ducks, geese) are known to carry viruses of the H5 and H7 strains or subtypes. These viruses are usually in the low pathogenic form - in other words, they aren't as deadly to birds as highly pathogenic strains.
Currently, avian influenza H5N1 is circulating in South East Asian and parts of Europe, infecting many poultry populations and some humans. This strain is highly pathogenic, or highly deadly to birds, and has infected a limited number of people. There is no evidence this virus is transmitted from person to person.
In the event of a pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada is the lead organization for coordinating the health response. The Agency's response is managed through the mobilization of the health portfolio's Emergency Operations Centre and liaison with the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. Learn more about the roles and responsibilities of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Health Canada is responsible for:
Health Canada, in partnership with the provinces and territories, has a plan in place to ensure appropriate steps are taken to protect Canadians, including ensuring that, once one is produced, an influenza vaccine will be available to Canadians at the earliest possible time.
It is very difficult to estimate what might occur in the event of an influenza pandemic. Experts believe that pandemic influenza could reach Canada within three months of being detected anywhere in the world. People would be expected to be ill for about 7 to 10 days.
The pandemic would have its maximum effect on the Canadian population within 5-7 months and could last up to 18 months.
Using information from the last three pandemics and a disease model developed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a pandemic could potentially result in between 9,000 - 51,000 deaths in Canada if a vaccine were not available. A severe shortage of hospital beds and health care workers could also occur.
With our current knowledge, there is no way to prevent a pandemic from occurring. There are, however, ways to lessen the impact and to decrease the number of deaths.
A global network of laboratories and surveillance systems coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) is keeping a watchful eye for new influenza strains. When a suspected pandemic strain emerges, international surveillance will provide Canada with an early warning so that we can start vaccine production.
The best way to protect yourself and others from influenza is to:
In this section, you can read more about pandemic influenza preparedness planning and some of the national, provincial and international exercises that Health Canada has led or has participated in.
Visit the Pandemic Influenza Portal for one-stop access to information from Government of Canada departments and agencies on pandemic, avian and seasonal influenza.
Avian influenza is a contagious viral infection that can affect all species of birds. On rare occasions, it can cause disease in humans. Learn more by consulting: