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‘Aussie’ flu

Off the track

‘Aussie’ flu

The NHS is preparing itself for a bad flu season. One of the strains circulating this year - H3N2 - has been dubbed Aussie flu because it is the same strain that recently caused big problems for Australia. Australia’s 2017 flu season was the worst the country had experienced in nearly a decade. Experts are waiting to see if similar will happen in the UK, after a recent rise in cases. Every winter there are a few strains circulating and Aussie flu or H3N2 is just one of them. It is an influenza A virus that appears to cause more severe infections in young children and the elderly. Most people will recover in about a week and won’t need any specific treatment, apart from a bit of bed rest, some paracetamol or ibuprofen and drinking plenty of fluids. But for some - the very old, very young or people with pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease - flu can be deadly. The UK is seeing a mix of flu types circulating including influenza B as well as the H3N2 strain. H3N2 is not new. It was around last winter too. Any strain of flu, including H3N2, can be dangerous for people who are vulnerable to it. Experience from last winter suggests the elderly are a high risk group for H3N2. Influenza viruses are given different names based on their type - A, B and C. A is usually the most serious while C is usually a milder infection. They can be further subdivided according to the proteins that they carry on their surface. These are called H and N antigens. The main strains circulating this winter are A(H3N2), A(H1N1) and B. Hospital admissions and GP visits for influenza have seen a sharp rise going into 2018, and although the figures are higher than last winter they are nowhere near as high as in 2009 when the swine flu pandemic hit the UK. Professor Paul Cosford, Medical Director, Public Health England said: “As we would expect at this time of year, flu levels have increased this week. Our data shows that more people are visiting GPs with flu symptoms and we are seeing more people admitted to hospitals with the flu. The vaccine is the best defence we have against the spread of flu and it isn’t too late to get vaccinated.” The vaccine is designed to protect against the type of flu circulating in any given season. Every year, the World Health Organization reviews the global situation and recommends which flu strains should go into the vaccine to be manufactured for the following season. This year’s flu jab is designed to protect against H3N2 as well as some other strains. Vaccination is the best protection we have against flu. But flu is unpredictable. Flu viruses constantly mutate and change, so it is a moving target to fight. Public Health England says typical effectiveness of the flu vaccine is 40-60%, which means that for every 100 people vaccinated, between 40 and 60 will be protected.

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