Fears were sparked after Australia saw approximately 170,000 cases of influenza during their winter period. The strain, H3N2—also known as ‘Aussie flu’—has been one of the most aggressive varieties of the illness to hit Australia in over a decade. As a result, it caused a number of deaths including a young mother of two, Jennifer Thew.
Now, health experts in the UK are concerned about the country’s level of preparation for the imminent arrival of flu season. With global transport and tourism being so common nowadays, it could be possible for us to be plagued with the same—potentially deadly—flu strain.
Professor Robert Booy, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Sydney, said: ‘What we are seeing in Australia at the moment could easily transmit to the UK because of ease of global travel and tourism.’
Last week Sir Malcolm Grant, chairman of NHS England, shared his concerns about the severity of the possible threat and how the health service would cope. He foretold that the NHS will be ‘inundated with cases’.
According to public health expert Professor Robert Dingwall, this could be the most serious flu outbreak since 1968’s pandemic that spread from Hong Kong and killed more than a million people worldwide. ‘Based on the Australian experience, public health officials need to meet and urgently review emergency planning procedures. Public Health England should be working with local authorities and local health services to ensure more hospital beds are freed up,’ he added.
Why should we take notice of flu warnings?
According to Public Health England (PHE), 8,000 people die of flu every year in the UK. Symptoms can include fever, chesty cough, sneezing, chills, aching muscles, tiredness, sore throat and increased mucus or phlegm production. Flu strains are named after their types of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase surface proteins, so they will be called, for example, H3N2 for type-3 hemagglutinin and type-2 neuraminidase.
While, in most cases, flu can be overcome in a week or two, it can pose a deadly threat to people with a weaker immune system. This includes the elderly and young children (usually between the ages of five and nine). Pregnant women also fall within this vulnerable group, as do health workers who regularly come into close contact with sick patients.
The nature of influenza is very unpredictable; flu viruses are characterised by proteins that are constantly changing—this enables them to avoid detection from our body’s natural defenses. A phenomenon known as ‘antigenic drift’ involves the natural mutation of known strains of influenza over time. This can lead to a loss of immunity or a mismatch in vaccination.
See also: How to Prevent the Flu
A similar transformative process called ‘antigenic shift’ involves different types of virus or different strains of the same virus combining to form a new subtype. This is the same process that allows a flu strain to jump from one animal species to another, including humans. If this process becomes large enough in scale it can lead to a pandemic. This progression caused the huge outbreak of swine flu back in 2009. The Aussie flu is said to be transforming quickly, but not so much to be described as a shift just yet.
The transformative nature of the flu virus can make the production of effective vaccines very difficult. Last year, the NHS flu vaccine was reportedly less effective on the senior age group. Despite this, the NHS still recommends getting vaccinated—especially if your health is considered vulnerable. Currently, there is even a push for those who come into close contact with the over 65s group to be vaccinated.
The annual flu vaccination is designed to stimulate the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that will attack the virus. According to the health service, early autumn is the optimal period for getting vaccinated. Contrary to popular belief, you will not overload your body’s immune system if you have several vaccinations. The NHS states that ‘[…] there are no harmful effects from giving multiple injections or vaccines in one session’. While there are no guarantees that getting vaccinated will prevent you from catching this year’s flu virus, it will reduce your risk significantly.
Between 2017 and 2018, the flu vaccination will be offered free of charge to all of the following:
- People aged 65 and above
- Pregnant women
- Those classed to be in clinical risk groups
- People living in nursing or residential homes
- The main carer for an old or disabled person
- Children aged two to three
- Children in reception class and years one to four (with their parent’s permission)
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