For at least five centuries, major epidemics and pandemics of influenza have occurred unexpectedly and at irregular intervals. Despite the modern notion that pandemic influenza is a distinct phenomenon obeying such constant (if incompletely understood) rules such as dramatic genetic change, cyclicity, "wave" patterning, virus replacement, and predictable epidemic behavior, much evidence suggests the opposite. Although there is much that we know about pandemic influenza, there appears to be much more that we do not know. Pandemics arise as a result of various genetic mechanisms, have no predictable patterns of mortality among different age groups, and vary greatly in how and when they arise and recur. Some are followed by new pandemics, whereas others fade gradually or abruptly into long-term endemicity. Human influenza pandemics have been caused by viruses that evolved singly or in co-circulation with other pandemic virus descendants and often have involved significant transmission between, or establishment of, viral reservoirs within other animal hosts. In recent decades, pandemic influenza has continued to produce numerous unanticipated events that expose fundamental gaps in scientific knowledge. Influenza pandemics appear to be not a single phenomenon but a heterogeneous collection of viral evolutionary events whose similarities are overshadowed by important differences, the determinants of which remain poorly understood. These uncertainties make it difficult to predict influenza pandemics and, therefore, to adequately plan to prevent them.
Published 2011. This article is a US Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.