Information for the community
Frequently asked questions
What is a pandemic?
A pandemic is an infectious disease that is prevalent in many countries simultaneously. The situation when this is most likely to happen is when the immunity of the general population to an infectious agent is low. This typically occurs with a new strain of influenza virus and is the reason why influenza activity is so carefully monitored by public health units worldwide. Pandemics may result in increased sickness and death and impose considerable economic and social hardship. For information on household emergency preparedness, click here.
While there are a number of infectious agents that could cause a pandemic, influenza is the most common. It is not possible to accurately predict when the next influenza pandemic will occur, however, epidemiologists conduct ongoing disease surveillance at a local, national and international level to monitor risk.
Novel influenza strains usually originate from viruses found in birds. Only a few avian strains have caused disease in humans. Since 1996 the H5N1 strain of avian influenza has resulted in the deaths of many millions of poultry and wild birds. Some people who have had very close contact with infected birds have caught the disease. Fortunately, H5N1 does not transmit readily between humans but this disease serves as a reminder to maintain stringent disease surveillance. H5N1 has not been found in Australia.
Seasonal influenza is a contagious disease that can cause profound respiratory symptoms and tiredness in people who are normally healthy but can be far more severe in people with underlying health conditions, the elderly (>65), pregnant women and Indigenous Australians. Because new strains often occur each year, an annual influenza vaccination is recommended. More information on seasonal influenza can be found here.
International travel introduces the risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal illness due to crowded conditions and exposure to disease agents. Advice on infection control while overseas can be found at the NSW Ministry of Health website.