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Facts for Life

Emergencies: preparedness and reponse

Supporting Information


An epidemic (or outbreak) of disease can cause an emergency because of the severity of the disease or responses to it. In the case of pandemic influenza and other diseases spread by close personal contact, those who are ill should be kept separated from others.

The impact of a disease outbreak depends on the severity of the disease as well as the responses by governments, communities and individuals.

An influenza pandemic, involving a new virus, can spread rapidly through a population that has little or no immunity against the new virus. The influenza might be moderate or severe in terms of the illness and death it causes. The outbreak can come and go repeatedly over time. Its level of severity can change over the course of the pandemic, making it unpredictable. It generally has a greater impact than regular seasonal influenza outbreaks.

Annual or seasonal influenza causes most deaths in people over 65 years of age. An influenza pandemic causes more severe illness and deaths in younger age groups. In both seasonal and pandemic influenza, pregnant women and children under 2 years old are at increased risk of complications and death. Older children have the highest rates of infection but tend not to have severe outcomes.

Influenza symptoms include high fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhoea. In some cases, influenza can lead to pneumonia and breathing difficulties.

During an outbreak of influenza or other infection, some general steps to help protect children and families include:

  • stay home if sick, and stay apart from others
  • know the symptoms and danger signs, and what to do and where to go to get help if the illness becomes severe
  • wash hands with soap and water often, and keep surfaces clean
  • cough or sneeze into an elbow or a tissue, and dispose safely of tissues
  • do not spit near children or in public.

In an outbreak of an infection that has serious consequences, it is important to reduce close contact with others:

  • stay at least one metre apart from others, especially if they are coughing or sneezing or look unwell
  • stay at home as much as possible and avoid public gatherings and travel.

In an extensive outbreak, some individuals may need to be isolated in a hospital setting for treatment or to prevent the spread of the infection. But for many people access to care may be limited.

To care for sick people at home and to prevent the spread of the infection in the household:

  • give sick people a separate space at home
  • assign a single caregiver to a sick person
  • give plenty of fluids and foods to the sick person.