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Fall 2006

Flu Pandemic Fear Put into Perspective

True or False? 1. A flu pandemic is nearly inevitable. 2. The current avian (bird) flu will likely become pandemic. Answers: 1. True 2. False

"Informing consumers about the real magnitude of risk is one way to help allay fear," explains Dave Pegues, M.D., UCLA infectious diseases specialist.
"The threat of a flu pandemic is very real, but it is nothing new. We've had three large flu pandemics in the 20th century. The last pandemic-the so-called Hong Kong flu-occurred in 1968-9 and killed an estimated 34,000 Americans," Dr. Pegues says. "What's new is the awareness in the general population, particularly in the context of the emerging epidemic of avian flu, that a flu pandemic is a real possibility."
The current avian flu is not a pandemic influenza, points out Zachary Rubin, M.D., infectious diseases specialist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. It is a strain of influenza that is highly adaptable and virulent in birds-chickens, ducks and migratory waterfowl-and rarely causes infection in humans. Out of 241 cases of bird flu reported in the world, 141 people have died-a high mortality rate, but low total number of deaths. "To put this in perspective, every year 10,000-20,000 Americans die of seasonal influenza and its Flu Pandemic Fear Put into Perspective Follow-up Care Key for Cancer Survivors complications," Dr. Pegues points out. As part of ongoing public health policy, the medical community continues to prepare for the next influenza strain that could cause a pandemic-it would be a strain to which humans have never been exposed.
"We don't know whether it will be a bird flu strain better adapted to cause illness and transmission to humans, or whether it might be a combination or recombination of bird-flu genes and human genes that causes a pandemic. Manufacturing millions of vaccines against the current avian flu strain is a risky strategy, since many believe this is not likely to be the strain of the virus that adapts, circulates and causes a pandemic," Dr. Pegues says.
"Our focus now is to develop new ways to more rapidly produce, and get out on the market, effective influenza vaccines once the pandemic strain is identified. At centers like UCLA, we are also preparing and planning for what we need to do should a pandemic strike."

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