Influenza pandemics: Past, present and future

Yu Chia Hsieh, Tsung Zu Wu, Ding Ping Liu, Pei Lan Shao, Luan Yin Chang, Chun Yi Lu, Chin Yun Lee, Fu Yuan Huang, Li Min Huang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

140 Scopus citations


Influenza A virus is well known for its capability for genetic changes either through antigen drift or antigen shift. Antigen shift is derived from reassortment of gene segments between viruses, and may result in an antigenically novel virus that is capable of causing a worldwide pandemic. As we trace backwards through the history of influenza pandemics, a repeating pattern can be observed, namely, a limited wave in the first year followed by global spread in the following year. In the 20th century alone, there were three overwhelming pandemics, in 1918, 1957 and 1968, caused by H1N1 (Spanish flu), H2N2 (Asian flu) and H3N2 (Hong Kong flu), respectively. In 1957 and 1968, excess mortality was noted in infants, the elderly and persons with chronic diseases, similar to what occurred during interpandemic periods. In 1918, there was one distinct peak of excess death in young adults aged between 20 and 40 years old; leukopenia and hemorrhage were prominent features. Acute pulmonary edema and hemorrhagic pneumonia contributed to rapidly lethal outcome in young adults. Autopsies disclosed multiple-organ involvement, including pericarditis, myocarditis, hepatitis and splenomegaly. These findings are, in part, consistent with clinical manifestations of human infection with avian influenza A H5N1 virus, in which reactive hemophagocytic syndrome was a characteristic pathologic finding that accounted for pancytopenia, abnormal liver function and multiple organ failure. All the elements of an impending pandemic are in place. Unless effective measures are implemented, we will likely observe a pandemic in the coming seasons. Host immune response plays a crucial role in disease caused by newly emerged influenza virus, such as the 1918 pandemic strain and the recent avian H5N1 strain. Sustained activation of lymphocytes and macrophages after infection results in massive cytokine response, thus leading to severe systemic inflammation. Further investigations into how the virus interacts with the host's immune system will be helpful in guiding future therapeutic strategies in facing influenza pandemics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-6
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of the Formosan Medical Association
Issue number1
StatePublished - 01 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Avian influenza virus
  • Influenza
  • Influenza A H5N1 virus
  • Pandemic


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