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A Flu Pandemic Is Coming, But When, and How Bad Will It Be?

Imagine closed schools, overwhelmed hospitals and people dying by the thousands — or even millions. That’s the nightmare scenario for a flu pandemic.

But how likely is a pandemic to happen — and if it does, to develop into this worst-case scenario?

Pandemics are “like earthquakes: You know it’s coming, but you’re not quite sure exactly when,” said Joshy Jacob, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University. “The seasonal flu appears predictably annually. Pandemics happen unpredictably and often catch you by surprise.”

There are reasons both for alarm and for optimism, experts say. Medical research could lead to breakthroughs that would mitigate a flu pandemic. And government and private entities can make preparations to help them get through a bad pandemic if it occurs. But there is much work to be done.

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