Communities need to be ready in the event of a flu or infectious disease outbreak. Your public health department or local health authority will play a large role in keeping your community informed. Look out for local, provincial and territorial governments for their pandemic plans as well. Decisions made by health officials may affect your social groups, sports teams, schools, restaurants, and community facilities. Help get the word out to your friends, family, neighbours, and social groups about the importance of being prepared, where to get reliable information during a pandemic, and to stay as healthy as possible.

Flu versus a pandemic flu

The word "influenza" (or the "flu") refers to a family of highly contagious viruses. These viruses can make you ill by infecting your nose, throat, and lungs. Adults who have the flu will suddenly feel a fever, cough, sore throat, malaise, and general aches.

However, not everyone will be affected in the same way. Children may also have nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. In very young children, the fever may not appear or it may not be as severe as in adults. Older persons often experience fever and sometimes chills, but these symptoms may not be as severe as in other adult age groups. In a "normal" influenza year, 4,000 Canadians on average die of influenza and its complications each year, and some years the number of deaths may be as high as 8,000.

There is often confusion between the seasonal ("regular") influenza, the "stomach flu" (which is actually not influenza, but is gastroenteritis - an inflammation of the stomach and intestine), and a common cold. The following chart helps to show these differences:

Influenza (Flu) Stomach "Flu" (Gastroenteritis) Cold
  • Sudden onset of:
    • High fever lasting 3-4 days
    • Cough, chest discomfort
    • Headache
    • Muscle aches and pains
    • Extreme exhaustion - usually at the start
    • Fatigue and weakness that may last 2-3 weeks or longer
    • Sore throat
    • Runny, stuffy nose, and sometimes sneezing
  • Symptoms can last 4-10 days and may become severe. A cough and general fatigue may last for several weeks.
  • Complications can lead to dehydration, pneumonia and respiratory failure; can worsen a current chronic condition; can be life-threatening.
  • Yearly flu vaccine will help prevent or ease symptoms (but may not protect against a new pandemic influenza virus).
  • Some people are at greater risk of more severe complications such as pneumonia (e.g. those over 65; those with chronic conditions like diabetes and cancer).
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Usually lasts 24-72 hrs
  • Yearly flu vaccine does not provide protection (because this illness is not actually caused by an influenza virus)
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Hacking cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever is rare
  • Headache is uncommon
  • Sometimes can have mild general aches and pains
  • Sometimes mild fatigue
  • Complications can lead to sinus congestion or earache

Adapted from "Had influenza (flu) lately?" poster by BC Ministry of Health and "Is it a cold or the flu?" by Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness & Promotion

Contagious Period: People can be infected and able to spread the virus (i.e. be contagious) 24 to 48 hours before they have any symptoms, and for 7 days after the symptoms start. This period of time when you are not yet sick but can spread the virus is why it is difficult to prevent influenza. Children may be contagious for up to 10 days.

How do I get the flu?

Influenza is highly contagious and spreads very quickly between people, especially in crowded situations. When someone with the flu coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets containing the virus go into the air. You can get the flu by breathing in these droplets through your nose or mouth, or by the droplets landing directly on your eyes. When someone coughs/sneezes and then touches an object (like a door knob) or shakes your hand, you can transfer the virus to your hands and then to your own eyes, nose or mouth where the virus can easily enter your body.

Not everybody who comes in contact with influenza virus will become ill, but they may still spread the infection to others (these people are called "carriers").

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak of a specific disease that spreads easily and rapidly through many countries. It is usually a serious illness that causes a large percentage of the population to become ill because they have little or no immunity to it.

What is a pandemic flu?

In the case of a flu pandemic, traditionally three or four times a century, the "normal" influenza type "A" virus changes drastically and essentially a new virus appears. Because this virus is radically different, people's immune systems are not able to fight it effectively. It can thus spread quickly and make many people ill and is thus called a pandemic flu. Everyone is at risk of getting this new virus and they will be at greater risk of developing severe complications like pneumonia than they would be from seasonal ("ordinary") flu. Pandemic flu can appear similar to a seasonal flu in terms of symptoms: fever, headache, stuffy nose, aches, pains, sneezing, sore throat and cough.

A pandemic may last up to two years and, based on previous pandemics, may occur in waves. Each wave could last six to eight weeks and be separated by three to nine months.

Another difference is that the new virus may affect people who do not normally suffer from seasonal flu such as young, healthy adults. The very young, the elderly or those with a suppressed immune system may be at an even greater risk. High rates of illness and death are expected in a pandemic. These illnesses may have an impact on social and economic areas of our daily lives including the availability of food, supplies, or other goods, and may also include a possible loss of services such as hydro (power) or water.

During a pandemic

What can I expect to happen during a pandemic?

It is difficult to say how much of an impact a flu pandemic will have as we do not know how many people will get ill or how ill they will become. However, most experts warn that in a widespread pandemic, our daily routines will be disrupted in some way.

It is estimated that 35% or more of the population will be too ill to go to work, and of those, more than 1% of could die. Organizations may choose to, or may have to, close operations because so many of their staff are either sick with flu or they are looking after ill family members.

Service Disruptions

Most businesses are expected to be operating at a lower staff level or have some level of reduced services. These disruptions may include:

  • Utilities (gas / hydro)
  • Banking
  • Grocery, pharmacies or other supplies
  • Health care, police, fire, paramedic, or public transportation
  • Municipal services such as water treatment and delivery, garbage removal, sewage treatment and maintenance
  • Government-run services (both federal and provincial) (e.g., passport office, social services, employment insurance, worker's compensation, etc)

In addition, health care services may be overwhelmed with demands for care. Increased need for certain types of supplies (e.g. tissues, prescriptions) may make these items harder to get. Some supplies may not be available at all.

Cancelling of Public Gatherings

In order to slow the spread of the influenza virus, public health officials may request that activities in places where people meet be cancelled. This closure can include:

  • Schools
  • Childcare
  • Transportation (ground, rail and air)
  • Retail stores
  • Workplaces
  • Places of worship
  • Funerals
  • Community events (cultural - e.g. theatre / sporting events)

Other changes

People may experience a number of other changes as well.

  • Job duties may change. You may be trained for additional duties to help cover the tasks done by people who become ill. Job duties that would normally be done in person (face-to-face) may change to contact by telephone, mail, or e-mail - or the service may be stopped temporarily.
  • Some people may choose to stay at home and not go to work. You may or may not be paid for this time away from work - be sure to ask your employer about what rules apply in this situation.
  • Some people may be asked to work from home.

With people choosing to isolate themselves or being requested to stay home, businesses will see a change in their customer activities, especially business such as restaurants, theatres, sports, etc. People may also choose to limit their social activities for a time after the pandemic is over as well (similar to what happened after SARS was in Toronto).

Stress and fear will also be factors. People may have care for the sick. They may also be grieving for lost friends or family. With disruptions to businesses, there will likely be some unemployment and/or reduced incomes as a result of a pandemic.

While this information can sound very scary (or way too "science fiction"), it can happen. It is good to think about these things and plan ahead of time. Take steps now to be prepared.

How will I know what is going on?

It is impossible to know ahead of time what might be closed, when it might be closed, or for how long. Public health officials will be making those decisions as the pandemic progresses. You will be able to find out what is happening in your community through your local TV news, newspaper, and radio, or you can call your local public health department.

What is a quarantine?

"Quarantine" can be defined as all steps taken, both mandatory and voluntary, that restrict the activities of people exposed to a communicable disease.

"Mandatory quarantine" separates (by legal order) people who may have been exposed to the virus from others who have not.

"Voluntary quarantine" refers to members of the public who voluntarily follow restrictions on activities as recommended by their federal, provincial or local health department.

The Medical Officer of Health has the authority under legislation to introduce these types of control steps that could include canceling public gatherings (meetings, social events, etc.) or ordering a mandatory quarantine.

It is generally recommended that anyone infected with the influenza virus during a pandemic should stay at home or be isolated at the hospital.

Other types of Quarantines

It is possible that other steps may be taken to reduce contact with the virus. A short-term quarantine may be used where everyone is asked to stay home for a day or two (similar to everyone taking a "snow day"). More restrictive quarantines are generally used for where all other control steps are believed to be ineffective.

Self-Quarantine - In a pandemic, many people or families may choose to "self-quarantine" by staying at home (not go school and work). They will also avoid social contacts such as groups or sports events. Self-quarantine is an effective way to reduce individual and family risk.

Sequestering - Because limiting face-to-face contact is also a proven way to reduce the spread of disease, businesses may consider the unusual option of having groups of essential "core" staff live temporarily either at the workplace or at a nearby hotel.

For more information on quarantines, please see: