The future of flu
Should we be concerned about the levels this year? Georgia Mills investigates…
Georgia - You’d be forgiven for wanting to run to the hills due to reports of this year’s bout of flu, with Aussie flu being accused as the deadliest strain in several years.
So, let’s start with the facts.
H3N2, aka aussie flu, is a strain of one type of flu known as influenza A. Despite the name, it’s not actually from australia, although Australia did experience a wave of infections with this form of flu last June and July, and the numbers of cases were much higher than expected. This is partly owing to the fact that we’ve recently discovered that the vaccines against this strain are only around 20% effective due to a problem in production.
Now it’s the turn of the northern hemisphere to be hit by the same flu, but should we be worried about a 1918 style level pandemic, as some reports are claiming?
If you look at the numbers in the UK, reported cases are not dramatically different from this time last year and we’ve not actually reached the threshold that defines an epidemic just et, although the incidence is climbing so that may change in the near future.
There are also large numbers of people being diagnosed with other respiratory viral infections that also produce flu-like symptoms, leading people to think they have the flu when they haven’t. On top of this, hospitals are under more financial strain this year, which may be affecting their ability to cope, and this is further fuelling some of the more apocalyptic headlines appearing in the press.
That said, we can’t afford to be complacent about the flu. Every year more than half a million people die from this infection. And if you are at high risk, because you have a chronic illness like liver, kidney or heart disease, a chest or immune problem, or you are over 65, then a flu jab is a good idea, although it’s best to get these before the start of the flu season.
So what can you do? Becoming a hermit is pretty impractical and surgical mask are as good as useless. But washing your hands regularly is effective, as is getting a vaccine.
So will we ever see a Universal vaccine?
Because influenza mutates so rapidly and can jump between animals species, trying to stop it is like playing the virological equivalent of whack-a-mole. If we block it in one way it’ll find a new place to pop up. But scientists are looking at ways to find a vaccine that would protect you against all forms of the flu, maybe even for life and in the journal Science Translational Medicine this week, scientists have successfully engineered a form of flu that lacks the normal viral defences, which could pave the way for making vaccines much more efficiently than we currently can...