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Influenza

Alternative names: various strains such as bird flu, swine flu and Spanish flu

Type of infection: viral

Incubation period: 2 to 5 days (up to 10 days for bird flu)

Mortality rate: up to 60% for bird flu

Vector: bodily fluid contact

History

Most people have heard of the Spanish flu strain, mainly because it caused a major world-wide pandemic in 1918. Millions of people died over the course of 2 years, and though we don't know the specific strain, it's considered likely that it was an H1N1 type of flu. That makes it very similar to the modern-day swine flu. There is no actual "Spanish flu" around today.

Swine flu (H1N1) made its debut in 2009 when it was discovered that this animal form of flu was now spreading between people. It spread through several countries, and was classed as a pandemic that kept going for most of the year. 18,000 deaths are attributed to the swine flu for that year alone.

Bird flu (H5N1 or avian flu) was discovered in 1997 in Chinese poultry farms, but it wasn't until 2012 when it began to infect people who worked with birds. Though it has killed a few hundred people, it still only infects people who live/work closely with infects birds (typically chickens or turkeys).

Catching the Flu

One of the reasons that the flu spreads so easily is that people are contagious about a day before they show any symptoms. Water droplets from sneeze or coughing will spread the virus, and it can persist on touched surfaces as well.

Bird and swine flu are typically animal diseases, and each one originates with infected chickens or pigs respectively. But only swine flu can be transmitted between people, and it's by the same method as the seasonal flu. Bird flu is not currently believed to move from person-to-person, though that could change with any small mutation of the virus.

Signs and Symptoms

Seasonal flu presents with a mix of fairly mild symptoms that include cough, sore throat, fever, body aches, chills and a runny nose. It can continue to worsen and lead to pneumonia, and possible respiratory failure.

With strains of swine flu, there is often digestive symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting more than with the other types of flu. On the other hand, bird flu tends to be more respiratory in nature and is more likely to lead to pneumonia than the others. Overall, the bird flu strains is the most serious and has a mortality rate up to 60%.

Treatment

There is no cure or treatment for any sort of flu other than using the standard OTC medications to deal with the various symptoms. Bed rest, additional fluids and pain relievers for the aches will all make the patient more comfortable.

If the flu progresses to pneumonia, than antibiotics can be of use (but not before). Amoxycillin is the usual treatment for that. People who are in good health to begin with usually don't have much to worry about with standard flu, but children and seniors can get very ill.

Prevention

All strains of flu are covered in the usual annual flu vaccine, which needs to be gotten each year as the disease changes frequently. So unfortunately, there is no single shot that will protect you for any length of time beyond a year. Otherwise, you simply have to avoid contact with ill people. Wear a mask if you are out around people who may be infected. Wash your hands with soap and water frequently after being out in public.

Risk Assessment

Well, the fact that the flu killed more than 50 million people in 1918 should indicate that it's a serious threat. It seems like a fairly common disease but it still kills about half a million people around the world annually. The flu spreads very easily and it is a virus that mutates rapidly (which is why vaccines can't keep up), which is why we're seeing new strains cropping up. The current fear is that a slight change in the bird flu strain could spark a pandemic because it is notably a more serious disease than the seasonal flu.

Another aspect of this to consider is that a bird flu pandemic through the poultry population could cause some serious disruption in the food supply, and possibly cause a lot of panic even if no one is directly getting ill.




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