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Understanding Bird Flu

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What is a flu pandemic? continued...

There were three outbreaks of a flu pandemic in the 20th Century:

  • The Spanish flu in 1918-1919 killed 500,000 people in the U.S. and as many as 50 million people worldwide.
  • The Asian flu in 1957-1958 killed 70,000 Americans.
  • The Hong Kong flu in 1968-1969 caused 34,000 U.S. deaths. This strain is still around. The recent "Fujian flu" is a variant of the Hong Kong flu virus.
  • The swine flu (H1N1) in 2009-2010 sickened up to 89 million people and caused as many as 18,000 deaths.

Since there have been four flu pandemics in the past 100 years, scientists are convinced that another flu pandemic is inevitable and that any part of the population is vulnerable. The problem is that it is very difficult to tell the difference between a pandemic flu outbreak and a seasonal flu outbreak.

Officials claim that testing to determine the type of flu outbreak could take weeks. Major research is being done that will hopefully speed up the process of influenza testing so that if a flu pandemic is imminent, experts will be able to do everything they can to stop this potentially life-threatening illness.

What is the flu, anyway?

Influenza -- commonly called "flu" -- is a contagious viral infection that infects the nose, throat and lungs and normally occurs in late fall and winter months. Unlike a common cold, the flu virus has the potential to cause serious flu complications. Each year, the flu kills around 36,000 Americans and puts any age group at risk for flu complications.

Spreading through the upper respiratory tract and sometimes invading the lungs, the flu virus can make you very ill for a week or two -- even longer if you get flu complications such as pneumonia or have a chronic medical condition.

Aside from avian or bird flu, what are the other types of flu?

The flu virus is categorized into three types: A, B, and C. Type A flu viruses are responsible for major epidemics. That's because these viruses mutate every few years and are difficult to isolate and eliminate. In addition, the human body cannot develop complete immunity to the type A flu viruses.

Type B flu is a less common form of influenza. Although it normally has a milder effect on the body, it has been responsible for major outbreaks every three to five years. Type C flu is less common. While type C flu virus causes illness, the symptoms of type C flu are the mildest.

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