Although generally perceived by the public to be a recurring, endemic, non-life-threatening problem, viral influenza ranks high on the list of diseases with epidemic potential. During years with high levels of influenza incidence, tens of thousands of fatalities may be experienced in the United States. During the World War I pandemic of 1918, it has been estimated that 40 to 50 million victims died worldwide, more than died directly from the war itself!

The traditional reservoirs for influenza include both humans and animals (especially chickens, ducks, and pigs). Close contact between these host species can provide an opportunity for mixing of the various strains in a single host. Unfortunately, the influenza virus readily undergoes genetic reassortment, leading to recombinant interactions that may develop as new strains of the influenza virus. The tendency in some parts of the Far East to maintain chickens, ducks, and pigs in or near residences is generally considered to be a reason why newer strains often develop in, and emanate from, this geographical area. Since the human immune system generally does not recognize the newer strains, they are able to cause a new epidemic of the disease.

However, virulent strains of influenza virus can also develop from genome mutation. One such event was documented in 1983 when a single mutation in a previously avirulent strain triggered a fatal chicken epidemic in Pennsylvania.

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