Historians believe that humans have been pounded by flu pandemics at various times for at least four hundred years. But a flu pandemic is a rare event, taking place only two or three times a century.
On the other hand, every year we experience a seasonal flu epidemic. There's no question it's contagious, passing from person to person. But it certainly doesn't sweep across the planet the way a pandemic does.
In Canada, ordinary seasonal flu is directly responsible for the deaths of between 500 and 1,500 people every year. It also kills many more Canadians who develop complications like pneumonia. Most of these victims are very old or young, or have already weakened immune systems.
A pandemic, on the other hand, is fast and furious. It can sicken or kill normally healthy, working-age adults. Those who get better will take a long time to recover. Often, a second wave of sickness comes a few months after the first, claiming even more victims. A pandemic can have a serious impact on the economy and on social supports like the health care system.
Last century, the world suffered through three separate pandemics:
Since 1969, the world's pandemic panic button has not been silent. We've had several scares. The swine flu in 1976 was at first thought to be similar to the powerful Spanish flu, raising alarms. The Russian flu in 1977 moved dangerously quickly through schoolchildren, but it was later found that many adults had already developed immunity.
Today, the potential of avian flu to spark a pandemic continues to be a concern. Many experts are worried that modern air travel will allow a pandemic flu virus to literally fly around the world fast.
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