Usually referred to as the flu or grippe, influenza is a highly infectious respiratory disease. Its name comes from the Italian word for "influence," because people in eighteenth-century Europe thought that the disease was caused by the influence of bad weather. We now know that flu is caused by a virus. When the influenza virus is inhaled, it attacks cells in the upper respiratory tract, causing such typical flu symptoms as fatigue, fever and chills, a hacking cough, and body aches. Although the stomach or intestinal "flu" is commonly blamed for stomach upsets and diarrhea, the influenza virus affects humans less often than is commonly believed.
Influenza is considerably more debilitating than the common cold. Influenza outbreaks occur suddenly, and infection spreads rapidly. The annual death toll attributable to influenza and its complications averages 20,000 in the United States alone. In the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic, the death toll reached a staggering 20–40 million worldwide. Approximately 500,000 of these fatalities occurred in North America.
Influenza outbreaks occur on a regular basis. The most serious outbreaks are pandemics, which affect millions of people worldwide and last for several months. The 1918-19 influenza outbreak serves as the primary example of an influenza pandemic. Pandemics also occurred in 1957 and 1968 with the Asian flu and Hong Kong flu, respectively.
Epidemics are widespread regional outbreaks that occur every two to three years and affect 5–10% of the population. A regional epidemic is shorter lived than a pandemic, lasting only several weeks. Finally, there are smaller outbreaks each winter that are confined to specific locales.
There are three types of influenza viruses, identified as A, B, and C. Influenza A can infect a range of animal species, including humans, pigs, horses, and birds, but only humans are infected by types B and C. Influenza A is responsible for most flu cases, while infection with types B and C virus are less common and cause a milder illness.
In the United States, 90% of all deaths from influenza occur among persons older than 65. Flu-related deaths have increased substantially in the United States since the 1970s, largely because of the aging of the American population. In addition, elderly persons are vulnerable because they are often reluctant to be vaccinated against flu.
A new concern regarding influenza is the possibility that hostile groups or governments could use the virus as an agent of bioterrorism. A report published in early 2003 noted that Type A influenza virus has a high potential for use as such an agent because of the virulence of the Type A strain that broke out in Hong Kong in 1997 and the development of laboratory methods for generating large quantities of the virus. The report recommended the stockpiling of present antiviral drugs and speeding up the development of new ones.
Belinda Rowland, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,