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Wilfrid Laurier University Safety, Health, Environment & Risk Management
October 21, 2017
Canadian Excellence


Learning about pandemic influenza and other respiratory outbreaks for the first time can be confusing and a little scary, so knowing all the facts will help you understand what an influenza pandemic is and how you can prepare for it.

Information for this FAQ was gathered from the Ontario Ministry of Health website.

What is influenza?

Influenza - or "the flu" - is a common, seasonal respiratory illness. The flu can leave you drained and tired, with muscle pains, headaches, chills, fevers, a sore throat or a bad cough. The flu is contagious and circulates on a seasonal basis, usually from October to April (the winter time).  Luckily, there is always a vaccine available before each season which will help make you immune to the virus and prevent its spread.

What precautions are being taken at Laurier?

  1. Health Services (HS) has posted signage instructing all visitors at point of entry and requests all visitors/clients to wash their hands prior to entry. Individuals with coughs are instructed to mask until cleared by a nurse or doctor.
  2. Hand washing and cough etiquette posters are provided to all dons in late September/early October at the beginning of the traditional flu season.
  3. Annual flu immunization clinics are held, both to help prevent seasonal influenza and also to ensure we are capable of mass immunization if a pandemic hits and a vaccine is developed.
  4. HS is stockpiling supplies such as masks, gloves and personal protective equipment to ensure HS staff are equipped to assist with assessing Laurier students.
  5. HS and SHERM are also following the latest developments by monitoring the World Health Organization and Ministry of Health and Health Canada's websites and updates, maintaining an open line of communication with our Public Health Officials, and benchmarking the activities of other colleges and universities.

    What is an influenza pandemic?

    An influenza pandemic is a flu outbreak distinguished from seasonal influenza by its scope and seriousness. It becomes a worldwide epidemic, or pandemic, when a disease spreads easily and rapidly through many countries and regions of the world and affects a large percentage of the population where it spreads.

    How does an influenza pandemic start?

    The viruses that cause ordinary/seasonal influenza – or “flu” – are constantly changing. An influenza pandemic starts when a new strain of flu virus emerges, and is different from common strains. Because people have no immunity to the new virus, it can spread quickly and infect hundreds of thousands of people. Influenza pandemic strains can develop when an animal or bird virus mixes with a human virus to form a new virus.

    What is the contagious period?

    Influenza can be contagious for one or even up to two days before any symptoms arise and for five days after the onset of symptoms. This means you could spread the virus without knowing you are infected. In addition the contagious period may be longer in the very young and those with weakened immune system.

    What's the difference between the flu and influenza pandemic?

    An influenza pandemic can appear very similar to the ordinary/seasonal flu. Because people will have little or no immunity to an influenza pandemic virus, the spread of the disease can occur more quickly than with the seasonal flu.

    The symptoms are the same: fever, headache, aches and pains, tiredness, stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat and cough. However, they can be much more severe with a pandemic influenza and affect people who do not normally suffer as much from the seasonal flu – such as younger, healthy adults. For example, in the 1918 and 1919 pandemic, the death rate was highest among healthy adults. It is important to note that the young and old may not have all the usual flu symptoms.

    Both ordinary/seasonal flu and an influenza pandemic are spread in the same way. The flu virus is spread when someone infected with the virus coughs or sneezes, and droplets containing the virus come in contact with another person’s nose, mouth or eyes. It can also be spread when people with the virus cough or sneeze into their hands and contaminate things they touch, such as a door handle. Other people can become infected if they touch the same object and then touch their face.

    Ordinary Flu Influenza Pandemic
    Seasonal flu happens every year. An influenza pandemic happens only two or three times a century.
    Seasonal flu is usually around from November to April – and then stops. An influenza pandemic usually comes in two or even three waves several months apart. Each wave lasts about two months.
    About 10% of Ontarians get ordinary seasonal flu each year. About 35% of Ontarians may get the influenza over the course of the full outbreak.
    Most people who get seasonal flu will get sick, but they usually recover within a couple of weeks. About half of the people who get influenza during a pandemic will become ill. Most will recover, but it may take a long time. And some people will die.
    Seasonal flu is hardest on people who don't have a strong immune system : the very young, the very old, and people with certain chronic illnesses. People of any age may become seriously ill with influenza during a pandemic. This depends on the virus.
    In a normal flu season, up to 2,000 Ontarians die of complications from the flu, such as pneumonia. During an influenza pandemic, Ontario would see many more people infected and possibly many more deaths.
    There are annual flu shots that will protect people from seasonal flu. There is no existing vaccine for an influenza pandemic. It will take four to six months after the pandemic starts to develop a vaccine.
    There are drugs that people can take to treat seasonal flu. These same drugs may also help people but we will not know their full effectiveness until the virus is identified.

    Will Ontario be affected?

    Yes. It is anticipated that a flu pandemic will make its way around the world within three months.

    The World Health Organization and public health experts around the world are watching carefully for the first signs of an influenza pandemic so they can take steps to slow down its spread.

    What will happen if an influenza pandemic hits Ontario?

    Once an influenza pandemic virus arrives in Ontario, it will likely spread quickly. Many people will become ill, and there will be a lot of pressure on our health care services.

    Depending on how widespread the influenza pandemic is, our daily routines will be disrupted from time to time. For example, companies may have to close down some of their operations. Cities may decide to provide essential services only in some areas. Public health officials may cancel public gatherings, such as concerts and sporting events, where the influenza virus can spread easily. They may close schools.

    We cannot predict just how Ontario will be affected until we know how strong the virus will be.

    Who is most at risk?

    We are all at risk of getting an influenza pandemic virus. An influenza pandemic will spread more quickly than ordinary/seasonal influenza because very few Ontarians will be immune. Some groups of people – such as the very young or very old – may be more at risk than others of getting seriously ill or dying.

    But everyone must be careful and aware. The 1918 and 1919 influenza pandemic infected and killed mainly healthy young adults in their 20s and 30s.

    We won’t know for sure who is most at risk until we know more about the virus.

    How many people will fall ill? What kind of care will they need?

    • Of the 35% estimated to get pandemic influenza, roughly half will require a visit with their family doctor or nurse practitioner. The other half will need information and advice to help them take care of themselves at home.
    • Depending on the severity of the symptoms, some will need to be admitted to hospital for care.

    What could a flu pandemic look like?

    We cannot predict just how Canada or Ontario will be affected until we know what the type or strength of the virus.

    However, once an influenza pandemic arrives in Ontario, many people will become ill, and this will place a lot of pressure on our health care services.

    People will see their lives disrupted from time to time. For example, companies/businesses may have to close down some of their operations; cities may decide to provide essential services only in some areas; public health officials may cancel public gatherings, such as concerts and sporting events; and schools may close. The degree for disruption will largely depend on the severity of illness caused by the virus and how widespread the virus is.

    When will there be a treatment for an influenza pandemic?

    There are drugs known as antivirals that can treat influenza infection. Right now, Ontario has a stockpile of antiviral drugs for the province, with plans to increase this stock to treat 25% of Ontario’s population in 2007-08 – as recommended by the World Health Organization.


    When will there be a vaccine for an influenza pandemic?

    Once scientists identify the influenza pandemic virus, work can start on developing the influenza pandemic vaccine. We are lucky in Canada, because a vaccine will be produced here and thus able to get distributed faster.

    The faster we learn about a specific strain of the influenza flu virus, the faster we can produce a vaccine that can help to prevent its spread. It’s important to remember that it will take time to do this, and our best defence is being prepared for an influenza pandemic before it occurs.

    How can I protect myself and family from an influenza pandemic?

    If an influenza pandemic spreads to Ontario, you can reduce your risk by doing the same things you do to protect yourself and your family from ordinary/seasonal influenza and other infections:

    - Get your seasonal influenza shot every year – the “flu” shot will not protect you from an influenza pandemic virus, but it will protect you from getting ordinary/seasonal flu, which could weaken your immune system or resistance.

    - Wash your hands with soap thoroughly and often – good hand hygiene is the best way to  prevent the spread of all viruses.

    - Keep an alcohol-based sanitizer (gel or wipes) handy at work, home and in the car (hand sanitizers should contain 60-90% alcohol).

    - Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, dispose of the tissue after use and always wash your hands as a last step.

    - If a tissue is not available, cough or sneeze into your sleeve

    - Stay home when you are sick

    - Avoid large crowds of people where viruses can spread easily when there is an outbreak in your community

    - Avoid large crowds of people and close contact with others (while traveling for example) during an influenza pandemic. Follow any instructions given by public health officials.

    What is the health system doing to protect us from a pandemic?

    The Chief Medical Officer of Health and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care are working with local public health units, primary care providers, hospitals, long-term care homes, home care providers – all parts of the health care system – to prepare for a flu pandemic. Their goal is to limit the spread of an influenza pandemic and provide the health services Ontarians will need.

    They are :

    • Monitoring flu in Ontario and in the rest of the world
    • Stockpiling antiviral drugs and equipment
    • Setting up distribution systems so we can get drugs and protective equipment to where they are needed quickly
    • Developing emergency plans so we can maximize the number of health care providers and facilities able to provide care
    • Developing information for the public and health care providers
    • Ensuring we can supply a lot of vaccine quickly as soon as one has been developed

    They have set up communications systems that are focused, timely and accurate so they can provide regular updates to tell Ontarians how to protect and care for themselves and their families.

    They have also developed planning information and guidelines for specific communities beyond the health care sector, including business and faith communities, as well as the general public. Their materials and planning guides are posted on the ministry website so that they are easily accessible.