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News

Aussie Flu: Should we be worried?

26 January, 2018

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If you haven’t seen at least one news article about ‘Aussie flu’ in recent week you’ve probably been living under a rock. Every day there appears at least one new article about the disaster it’s causing for the NHS, and for mortality rates. But beyond the headlines, does the data support this, or is it just another media exaggeration?

It’s no secret that the NHS is struggling, in the 2016-2017 financial year, a cash injection of £1.8bn was provided by the government to help stabilise the NHS, and they still ended the financial year with a deficit of £791m.

Each winter, flu season brings the NHS to its knees, with long waits and beds left in corridors. Winter crisis in the NHS is not a new phenomenon, the cold nights bright more patients, often in the form of the elderly or infirm, who are unable to fight against the cold as well, so is Aussie flu any different?

There is no denying that ‘Aussie flu’ exists. So called because Australia was hit by one of its worst seasons of flu in recent history, it is of a different strain to what we usually see in Britain. Whilst it is called Aussie flu due to their recent outbreak, it is thought to have originated in a sub-tropical region, and travelled to Australia from there.

A recent BBC article looked into the facts surrounding Aussie flu, and it brings some interesting information to the table. The article states that this winter’s flu outbreak is indeed the worst we’ve seen for seven years, with the latest figures showing an increase of 40% in the number of people visiting their GP. These figures don’t of course include those who avoid their GP surgery for whatever reason, so in fact the figure is likely to be much higher. It is not expected that things will improve much in the coming weeks, so is Aussie flu to blame for this increase in cases?

There are three types of flu viruses: A, B and C influenza, each of which contains a number of different strains. Currently half of hospital flu cases are the B strain. The most lethal strain is type A, the more serious of which (known as pandemic flu) initially comes from the transmission from animals to humans. ‘Aussie flu’, scientifically known as H3N2 strain, is a strain A flu virus but, like B strain flu it is still a type of seasonal flu, - it is just harder to control.

Aussie flu is not a new strain of the flu virus (as some media outlets have appeared to suggest), but it is a more severe strain of flu than we have seen in recent years.

It also poses an issue in that it differs from the strain of flu that our vaccines are designed to protect against.

As flu viruses pass from person to person they are constantly evolving and this means our immune systems can’t recognise them as easily. Vaccines don’t necessarily mean you won’t get flu, but it means that the severity of the symptoms is reduced, and as result fewer people go to hospital and spread it to people who have already got compromised immune systems.

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However, one of the issues is that it is hard to predict which strain will be the most dominant each year in order to create the vaccine to protect against it. This year, the strain is significantly different to the strain of the flu jab, meaning that more people are falling ill as they are not sufficiently protected.

Part of the problem with predicting the right vaccine is that, in order to manufacture enough flu vaccine for one winter, eight or nine months are required to develop and manufacture it. This means that scientists must decide which strains of flu to include in the vaccine a number of months before ‘flu season’ begins, making it hard to predict what’s going to be the more dominant strain.

Unfortunately, that is what has happened this year. Scientists had not predicted that a different, and stronger, strain of flu would come from Australia, and as a result flu season has been worse than in previous years.

A universal flu vaccine is still many years from being introduced, and the vaccine that is available to protect against the more common B strain is not available to everyone. This is because not enough vaccine is produced for this to be a viable option, and even if the government decided to order enough for everyone for next year (despite the cost this would entail), there’s a risk it may not be the right strain, and a more dominant strain could still spread among the population.

You might assume, from the level of media coverage, that the Aussie flu outbreak is similar to that of swine flu in 2009, which killed 457 people in the UK. However, swine flu was what is known as a ‘pandemic flu’, where a new strain of the flu virus emerges from an animal. In contrast, Aussie flu is just another seasonal flu strain, albeit one that is more difficult to control. Although Aussie flu has led to a number of deaths in the UK so far, pandemic flu can have catastrophic consequences. We saw this with swine flu in 2009, and on a much larger scale with Spanish flu in 1918-19, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, many of whom were previously healthy adults.

It is clear, therefore, that while we are seeing one of the worst flu seasons of recent years, Aussie flu is not quite the demon it is being made out to be. Yes, it is serious, as it is resistant to the vaccine many were given at the start of the flu season, but it is just another strain of seasonal flu, despite what the media would have you believe, albeit a more serious strain.

If you suspect you have flu, please make sure you seek medical attention. Some GPs may advise you to stay away from the surgery in order to prevent further spread of flu, so depending on the seriousness of your illness it is best to dial 111 or 999 for help.