Flu crisis alarm grows as deadly virus surges

Killer: Up to 650,000 people die from seasonal flu every year, according to the WHO.

How scared should we be about the latest flu outbreak? One hundred years after Spanish flu killed 50 million people, thousands across the world are falling victim to another fatal epidemic.

You may not be able to see it, but right now a lethal flu virus is sweeping the UK. It has already killed at least 120 people, making it the worst flu season in Britain for seven years — and it could get worse.

The UK is not the only country suffering. For the first time in over a decade, the flu is “widespread” in every mainland US state at the same time. In California 42 people under 65 have been killed, and the state’s hospitals are reportedly facing a “war zone” of flu patients.

The US epidemic comes after Australia suffered its worst flu outbreak on record at the end of last year. Since the disease spread to other countries it has come to been known as “Australian flu”.

There are four different types of influenza. Types A and B are particularly dangerous to humans. While type C does not cause major illness, and type D only affects pigs and cows.

Australian flu is a type of influenza A, specifically the dangerous H3N2 strain (described by Dr Anthony Fauci as “the bad actor among influenzas”). However, there are also three other types of flu spreading around the population, making this outbreak particularly difficult to contain.

Furthermore, flu viruses constantly mutate. This is why scientists produce a different vaccine every year. However, while researchers were preparing this year’s shot, the virus inside it unexpectedly mutated, meaning it may only be 20% protective against the current outbreak.

On top of these difficulties, 2018 represents a rather ominous anniversary. One hundred years ago humanity was ravaged by one of the worst pandemics in human history: the Spanish flu.

Lasting from 1918 to 1920, the disease raced around the world, infecting people from the Pacific to the Arctic. By the time it was finished, 500 million people had been infected, and at least 50 million were dead — around three times the number of people killed in the first world war.

But how worried should we be about this flu outbreak?

Going viral

Very worried, some say. As Bill Gates claimed: the devastation that pandemics can cause is “up there with nuclear war and climate change”. Flu is a resilient virus and there is a chance that this outbreak will get out of hand. While medicine has improved massively since 1918, we are more mobile and connected than ever before. It will not take much for the virus to spread.

We must not blow this out of proportion, others reply. Flu is a seasonal disease which kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. A spike in cases does not mean an apocalyptic pandemic is around the corner. Moreover, there are easy ways for us all to manage the problem: those eligible should get the vaccine and we all need to practise good hygiene.

You Decide

  1. What is more harmful: disease or war?
  2. Why do people find disease such a frightening thing?

Activities

  1. Flu is a viral infection that is spread much like the common cold. What steps can we all take to reduce the chance of passing on infections to others? Design a colourful poster which includes tips on how to reduce the chance of spreading germs and disease.
  2. Do some research into the flu virus and its impact throughout the world. Which countries are most affected? Why is the virus so dangerous? How bad is the current crisis compared to historical incidents?

Some People Say...

“It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.”

Margaret Chan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In Britain over 8 million people are currently suffering flu symptoms. This is a 2.5 fold increase in the number of cases over the last two weeks. If this trend continues the disease will reach epidemic levels within two weeks. In America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that the USA “experiences epidemics of seasonal flu each year.”
What do we not know?
We do not know how much worse the crisis will get and how many more people will contract the illness. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine the precise number of deaths caused by flu. Sufferers often die from underlying infections or conditions rather than the flu virus itself. As a result the CDC collects data on “flu associated deaths” rather than “flu deaths”.

Word Watch

Widespread
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Under 65
Officials only collect data for flu deaths of those under 65, therefore the actual death toll is probably higher.
H3N2
Influenza A is further subdivided by the number of proteins the virus carries: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). So far 18 Hs and 11 Ns have been identified. There are just two main types of influenza B: Victoria and Yamagata (named after cities in Australia and Japan).
Three other types
One is another strain of influenza A: H1N1. The others are the two strains of influenza B: Victoria and Yamagata.
Difficult
The most common vaccine used in the UK protects against H1N1, H3N2, and Victoria (influenza B). However, this year the Yamagata strain is more common, making the vaccine less effective.
Inside it
Vaccines are made from the weakened bacteria or virus of the disease they are designed to prevent. When injected, the patient develops a resistance to the pathogen without becoming infected by the disease itself.
Pandemics
A disease that spreads quickly throughout the entire world.

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