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A pandemic is a global epidemic in which an infectious disease breaks out over a large geographic region. A flu pandemic is, of course, an epidemic of a strain of the influenza virus. With the recent media coverage of bird flu, many people are becoming educated on avian influenza, pandemics in history, and the likelihood another may occur.
There have actually been several pandemics or epidemics of various flu strains in the last century. One of which, the Spanish Flu, surfaced in 1918 in Massachusetts and spread worldwide, killing 50 million people. This particular strain, H1N1, has been reconstructed by the Center for Disease Control to study the molecular make up of the virus.
The Asian Flu spread from China in 1957 to the United States and led to the death of 70,000 people. Likewise, the Hong Kong Flu was identified in the U.S. in 1968 and led to 34,000 people dying. This strain of the flu virus is still in circulation today.
If you look back into history, there is record of influenza pandemics varying in intensity at 20-40 year intervals. So, to answer the question, “how likely is a flu pandemic”, the answer would have to be relatively likely.
However, the history books will also show things like the Black Plague, the Antonine Plague, and the Plague of Justinian; bubonic plague and smallpox being the most likely causes of these pandemics. With our advanced medical technology, these diseases have almost completely been removed from circulation and have little threat on modern society.
For this reason, many people doubt the likelihood of a pandemic considering technical advancements in medical diagnosis and treatment. Others expect a vaccine to be developed before any widespread infection of the bird flu virus.
The current outbreak of avian influenza has infected 131 people and killed 68 of those. With an exceptional mortality rate, this virus has a potential to be a danger. The accelerated spread of the disease is also reason for concern. In less than two years, it has covered Asia, Europe, and the Middle East and is mutating, unfortunately, to a form that may be transmitted more easily. Each of these factors, coupled with the fact that no vaccine for the mutated form has been created and can not be created until after mutation occurs, supports the possibility of a pandemic. If the mutation occurs and a vaccine is developed quickly, there may be no concern for the incredible panic sweeping the world.