Fall in the United States is the typical time clinicians prepare for the upcoming influenza season. The CDC reports that seasonal flu can affect 5%-20% of the population annually, causing about 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths in the United States.

Public health agencies in conjunction with private partners make extensive plans throughout the year for the nationwide distribution of flu vaccine and the monitoring and surveillance of expected and unusual strains of influenza. Experts worldwide are closely monitoring this flu season to determine the impact the current H1N1 influenza (so-called swine flu) outbreaks will have.

Monitoring and surveillance are important for a variety of reasons, one being that an influenza virus is smart. A virus present in animals can spread to humans, change during the transition, and effectively replicate. A virus can also easily change its subtype. For example, there are 16 different types of hemagglutinin (H) and nine different neuraminidase (N) surface proteins. With a twist of the viral Rubik’s Cube, a variety of subtypes can emerge, such as H5N1 and H1N1. The creation of a novel influenza constitutes a major concern because the general population has little or no immunity to it. A flu vaccine may not protect against the new subtype, which is one reason why global vigilance is so important.

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Numerous Internet resources can help clinicians stay current with influenza outbreaks and other infectious disease developments:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) provides international information on various disease outbreaks through its Epidemic and Pandemic Alert Response (EPR) Web site: www.who.int/csr/disease.
  • The U.S. government has gathered information from all its agencies to create an official pandemic flu Web site: www.pandemicflu.gov.
  • The University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) contains a wealth of information for clinicians: www.cidrap.umn.edu.
  • One influenza Web site allows users to read live reports from the field and join groups of mutual interests: www.flutrackers.com.

One can also subscribe to various Web-based newsfeeds and health organizations’ Twitter accounts to receive outbreak alerts and updates.

Clinicians can also participate in free online courses focusing on influenza and other infectious diseases. For example, the Center for Public Health Preparedness at the State University of New York at Albany (www.ualbanycphp.org) offers a variety of e-learning courses, including one geared in part toward nurse practitioners and physician assistants: “Basic Emergency Preparedness for Staff of Community Health Facilities.” Registrants can earn continuing-education credits for this and many other courses.

Public health experts have noted that the concern is not whether a pandemic will occur but when. A community working in coordination with experts is the most effective way to respond to and control an epidemic.

Clinicians play an important role not only in administering influenza vaccines but also in effectively diagnosing and reporting the illness to the appropriate surveillance units. They also are influential in stopping the spread of a disease by educating patients, and several Internet resources can help arm them with the proper information to achieve this goal.