The flu is a disease caused by the influenza virus. There are three major types of flu, type A, type B, and type C. Types A and B are the ones that usually cause outbreaks in humans.
There are many strains of each type of flu virus, and the flu virus is regularly changing or mutating. The "flu season" is usually throughout the winter and spring.
The flu shot can decrease your chances for catching the flu or your symptoms if you do get sick. Regular handwashing and covering your cough or sneeze with your elbow or a tissue are other very good ways of stopping the spread of the flu.
H1N1 (formerly swine) flu
This year, a new strain of H1N1 appeared that has spread around the world. Due to how fast and how far it has spread, the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic.
This H1N1 strain has genes from human, swine and avian influenzas; however, as the swine components were announced first, it is often called swine flu by the media.
At this time, H1N1 targets a different population than the normal seasonal flu, with school age children, young adults and pregnant women being the hardest hit. For most, H1N1 has milder symptoms and doesn't last as long as seasonal flu; however, in some cases it does tragically result in death.
A special vaccine for H1N1 has been developed. This vaccine will not replace the seasonal flu vaccine. It will not protect against the seasonal flu, nor will with seasonal flu vaccine protect against H1N1. This year, most people will need to get both shots.
Due to past exposure to similar strains of H1N1, people over 50 have some immunity, and the H1N1 vaccine is not recommended for those over 65 years old.
Avian (bird) flu
Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about avian or bird flu, calling it H5N1. Don't let that name confuse you. The H and the N stand for some of the proteins in the flu virus that doctors use to identify it.
H5N1 is one of several Type A flus that spreads rapidly and easily through bird populations, usually killing the infected birds (there are even many types or "strains" of this H5N1 virus, some of which are far less or more deadly than others).
This strain of H5N1 has spread throughout Asia into Europe and Africa, and researchers in the United States and Canada are keeping close watch to try to minimize the affect it will have here.
H5N1 has been found in the US, but it is a weaker strain that we call low pathogen. Low pathogen means it is harder to catch it, get sick from it or spread it. We call the types in Asia and Africa high pathogen, which means it spreds easily and is deadlier in birds.
People can catch H5N1, but so far it has infected mostly people who either live closely with or handle a lot of birds who carry the disease. At this time, H5N1 does not spread easily from person to person.
Any flu virus that the majority of the people are not immune to could become a pandemic or world-wide flu.In the case of a pandemic flu, a lot of people will get sick, and many could die. In the pandemic that happened during World War I, more than 500,000 Americans and nearly 40 million people world wide died of the flu.
That is why there is so much media coverage, and the federal, state and local health departments are working hard to educate the public on flu prevention, preparedness and safety. We hope to prevent a pandemic flu outbreak from happening and to prepare people for how to be safe if one does.
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