Why are pandemics such dreaded events?

Why are pandemics such dreaded events?

Influenza pandemics are remarkable events that can rapidly infect virtually all countries. Once international spread begins, pandemics are considered unstoppable, caused as they are by a virus that spreads very rapidly by coughing or sneezing. The fact that infected people can shed virus before symptoms appear adds to the risk of international spread via asymptomatic air travellers.

The severity of disease and the number of deaths caused by a pandemic virus vary greatly, and cannot be known prior to the emergence of the virus. During past pandemics, attack rates reached 25-35% of the total population. Under the best circumstances, assuming that the new virus causes mild disease, the world could still experience an estimated 2 million to 7.4 million deaths (projected from data obtained during the 1957 pandemic). Projections for a more virulent virus are much higher. The 1918 pandemic, which was exceptional, killed at least 40 million people. In the USA, the mortality rate during that pandemic was around 2.5%.

Pandemics can cause large surges in the numbers of people requiring or seeking medical or hospital treatment, temporarily overwhelming health services. High rates of worker absenteeism can also interrupt other essential services, such as law enforcement, transportation, and communications. Because populations will be fully susceptible to an H5N1-like virus, rates of illness could peak fairly rapidly within a given community. This means that local social and economic disruptions may be temporary. They may, however, be amplified in today’s closely interrelated and interdependent systems of trade and commerce. Based on past experience, a second wave of global spread should be anticipated within a year.

As all countries are likely to experience emergency conditions during a pandemic, opportunities for inter-country assistance, as seen during natural disasters or localized disease outbreaks, may be curtailed once international spread has begun and governments focus on protecting domestic populations.