Influenza is commonly regarded as one of the world’s greatest public health challenges, with an estimated one billion cases across the globe each year1. But why is influenza such a challenge and what can healthcare settings do to defend against it?
A closer look at the virus
Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness that is caused by various types of the influenza virus2. There are four types of Influenza (A, B, D and D) but only the A and B types of the virus are behind seasonal epidemics, as C types are much rarer and more mild, while D type primarily affects cattle and does not cause illness in humans3. Flu season in the UK often begins as early as October, peaking between December to February4.
Part of what makes influenza such a challenge for health authorities is the fact that it is constantly evolving. As the virus affects so many people each year, this causes it to mutate at a rapid rate, gaining new characteristics. This process is called antigenic drift5, and, essentially, means that the virus becomes immune to any defensive measures that are developed to act against it. It is for this reason that the flu vaccine needs to be redeveloped every year.
Symptoms and statistics
Symptoms of the flu include sudden high temperatures of above 38ºC, body aches, exhaustion, a dry cough, sore throat, loss of appetite, nausea and, in some cases, diarrhoea.
In serious cases, influenza can be fatal. Although the mortality rate depends on the severity of the flu season, generally speaking, the disease claims the lives of around 6,000 people in the UK each year. However, complications brought on by the flu virus could mean that this number is much higher. Indeed, a report that looked at the burden of Influenza in England and Wales suggested that the virus could be responsible for as many as 25,000 deaths per year in the UK – comorbidity with other diseases often hides the impact that influenza has.
Flu usually becomes more serious in those with weaker or less developed immune systems. as such, at risk groups include children aged under five years old, the elderly, those living with chronic medical conditions and those who have immunosuppressant illnesses such as HIV and AIDS. Those working in healthcare settings are also at greater risk of catching the virus due to increased exposure when treating patients.
How to stop the spread of flu
First and foremost, the best protection for individuals against influenza is the yearly flu vaccine. In the UK, the flu vaccine is available free of charge to those who are deemed most at risk, including individuals over 50 years old, young children and those with the medical conditions described above. Those living with immunocompromised people are also eligible, as well as people who work in hospitals, hospices and care homes.
Everyday preventive measures include enforcing a high standard of hand hygiene, disinfecting surfaces with cleaning solutions that effectively destroy the flu virus and avoiding close contact with infected individuals.
Additionally, if you think you have the flu, it is recommended that you avoid contact with others, cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, handwashing and stay at home for at least 24 hours after your fever has subsided.
A disease we should all be aware of
Ultimately, although flu season comes year after year, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact this virus can have. By understanding the virus on a deeper level and taking appropriate preventive and infection control measures, you can help ensure that your setting is safeguarded against influenza.
1 PAHO. WHO Launches New Global Influenza Strategy. Link: https://www3.paho.org/hq/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15016:who-launches-new-global-influenza-strategy&Itemid=135&lang=en#gsc.tab=0 [Last accessed August 22].
2 Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Key Facts About Influenza (Flu). Link: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm#:~:text=Flu%20is%20a%20contagious%20respiratory,a%20flu%20vaccine%20each%20year. [Last accessed August 22].
3 World Health Organization. Influenza (Seasonal). Link: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/influenza-(seasonal) [Last accessed August 22].
4 Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu Season. Link: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm [Last accessed August 22].
5 Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. How Flu Viruses Can Change: “Drift” and “Shift”. Link: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/viruses/change.htm#:~:text=One%20way%20flu%20viruses%20change,)%20and%20NA%20(neuraminidase). [Last accessed August 22].