Flu Shots - Next Big Influenza Outbreak

October, 1999 -- There is great concern about when the next big outbreak of influenza (the flu) will occur, adding significantly to the reasons to get a flu shot this year.

Influenza is an acute (abrupt) respiratory disease. It is highly contagious and is now very much a disease of global importance.

The word "influenza" is menacing to those who know of the great pandemics of this century. These pandemics have occurred for centuries, three times -- 1918, 1957 and 1968 -- in the 20th century alone. The infamous "Spanish flu" of 1918 was responsible for more than 20 million deaths, primarily among young adults.

A pandemic is an epidemic, a sudden outbreak, that becomes extremely widespread and affects a whole region, an entire continent, or the world.

Why Worry About Getting the Flu?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) has estimated the possible effects of the next influenza pandemic in the United States. Using death rates, hospitalization data, and outpatient visits, the CDC estimates there may be:

  • 89,000 to 207,000 deaths,
  • 314,000-734,000 hospitalizations:
    • 18 to 42 million outpatient visits and
    • 20 to 47 million additional illnesses.
  • Patients at high risk (15% of the population) would account for 84% of all deaths.

Influenza Viruses Unique

Influenza is an extraordinary infectious disease. It emerges and reemerges. Influenza causes an annual epidemic that is due to influenza viruses that reemerge, having mutated (changed) enough so they can reinfect people who had an earlier bout of flu. And pandemics of influenza can strike unpredictably because of the emergence of new types of influenza virus that are harbored in birds.