Pandemic Preparedness

A Flu Pandemic Is Coming, But When, and How Bad Will It Be?

One of the reasons authorities are currently worried about the possibility of a flu pandemic is the increasing amount of interaction between human flus and bird flus.

by Margaret Steen / July 13, 2017

Imagine closed schools, overwhelmed hospitals and people dying by the thousands — or even millions. That’s the nightmare scenario for a flu pandemic.

But how likely is a pandemic to happen — and if it does, to develop into this worst-case scenario?

Pandemics are “like earthquakes: You know it’s coming, but you’re not quite sure exactly when,” said Joshy Jacob, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University. “The seasonal flu appears predictably annually. Pandemics happen unpredictably and often catch you by surprise.”

There are reasons both for alarm and for optimism, experts say. Medical research could lead to breakthroughs that would mitigate a flu pandemic. And government and private entities can make preparations to help them get through a bad pandemic if it occurs. But there is much work to be done.

People tend to hear the phrase “flu pandemic” and envision a situation like the 1918 flu, which killed millions worldwide. But a pandemic actually just means an illness that is easily spread from person to person in a susceptible population. Flu pandemics occur when the typical mutations in the influenza virus are more significant than usual — often involving viruses that affect birds.