Flu will be nothing to be sneezed at this winter
Watch out, the virus has wreaked havoc in the UK
Bless you if you get flu this year. You’ll be affected by one of the oldest known viruses — and seemingly one of the cleverest.
Human beings, for all our knowledge and advances in science, have not worked out how to get rid of the virus, which keeps evolving to dodge our immune systems.
Virologists believe it lives in the air, mutating and multiplying, probably enjoying the climatic conditions over Asia before it moves to vulnerable host countries.
At any given time, the strain that appears for the flu season can develop from a three-day irritation to a month-long near-death experience, or be potentially fatal depending on your immune strength, says Wits Professor Cheryl Cohen, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.“What has happened this season is a severe strain of flu that has affected Australia, America and England. Even so, we can’t predict if that will be the case in South Africa. We must pay attention to the trends, and there is a global community that works out which vaccines must be taken in March/April to manage the strain of flu that is out there. The flu vaccine is updated every year and we try to match it correctly to one of three strains which exist. Some years the match is better than others, but even if the match is not correct vaccines will give some coverage for prevention.”
The niggly virus first afflicts birds and animals before spreading to humans.
It might have stopped cavemen from their goings-on, more than cavewomen, as a means of preventing them from exerting themselves. (And man flu is still prevalent today.)
But how did it go from being a little bothersome to deadly?
This year’s bug, so-called “Australian flu” because it might have started in winter down under, travelled to the UK where it quickly became the worst flu crisis in 20 years. About 100 people died in winter and many more were in intensive care, while 22,000 people needed to see their doctor for relief. And their winter isn’t over yet.“Flu is not getting worse, but every few years there will be a strain that will be more severe than other years because it evolves into a new virus that we have not had exposure to. Sometimes the changes that happen give rise to a more severe strain and you will see more deaths, more hospitalisation,” said Cohen.
The symptoms remain the same – fever, body aches, sore throat, exhaustion, loss of appetite – but some flu strains, such as H3N2, are particularly ferocious and can last for weeks. Vaccines have low efficacy, at best 30%, and vulnerable people most often suffer as a result of secondary pneumonia or bacterial infections that the flu can bring on.
Yet we are advised that our only chance to fight it is vaccination, regular handwashing and limiting contact with those who get it, particularly if you are pregnant or elderly.
HOW IT IS RELATED TO 100-YEAR-OLD SPANISH FLU
“Spanish flu is distantly related to the H1N1 that was problematic recently,” says Cohen.
It might not have originated in Spain, though, and the accurate numbers of those who succumbed may never be known because of under-reporting — a war tactic. Reports of the extent of the flu were suppressed in Germany, Austria, France, the UK and the US to throw enemies off about how strong or weak the country’s armies were in World War 1.
But neutral Spain didn’t think that far, and the flu seemed more prevalent there only because the Spanish reported the effects, hence taking ownership of the name.
Today, theories include that it originated in Asia, America or Europe.
The 1918 flu spread rapidly, killing 25 million people in its first six months.
Cohen said similarly in South Africa it was a type of flu that had not experienced before.“A pandemic is often caused by a new virus, sometimes circulated by animals. When it comes into contact with humans there is no pre-existing immunity in the population. It spreads rapidly and causes a big outbreak. In 1918, the virus was not only spreading rapidly, it was particularly severe,” she said.
Spanish flu may have been slightly stronger than regular viruses, but the wartime woes might have been more of a catalyst. Crowding in military camps, poor nutrition and sanitation would have contributed to the spread.
Also, bacterial pneumonia in lungs weakened by influenza led to fatalities.
Many people survived it, but it badly affected smaller homogenous groups such as Native Americans who were not exposed to it previously. Entire communities were wiped out.
“In 100 years, the Spanish Flu virus is still part of the same big family of flu viruses. It doesn’t go away, but the human population develops immunity and by the next year, it turns into a normal seasonal flu strain,” said Cohen.