Influenza - what you need to know

Avian Flu and Pandemic Flu have been a hot topic for the press and media not only in the UK but also globally. This briefing note is aimed at giving you some clarity on some of the issues you may read in the press or see on television. It also outlines what steps an international company is taking to prepare for pandemic flu.

An outline of 3 types of influenza (flu) is given below. Only two of these 3 types of flu
exist at the moment.
Seasonal Flu
These are the influenza viruses that affect the human population on a seasonal basis,
usually November to March in the Northern hemisphere. There are different sub-types of viruses and these are coded depending upon the types of proteins on the surface of the virus. The viruses that affect humans are usually H3N2 or H1N1. We have some immunity to these viruses. Those at higher risk of developing seasonal flu are the very young, the very old, and those with chronic medical conditions. Health Care workers are also at higher risk due to increased exposure. As with all influenza viruses, we may be contagious (i.e. can pass on the virus) up to 24 hours before symptoms actually develop. Seasonal influenza tends to last 1 – 2 weeks with symptoms much more severe than the common cold. The flu vaccine, produced each year, is very effective at preventing seasonal flu. There is nothing to suggest that it gives protection against other types of flu.
Avian “Bird” Flu
This influenza virus (H5N1 strain) is currently spreading from the Asia Pacific Region.
This virus has historically affected poultry and other domesticated birds in the above region. However, it is now transmitting to wild birds. It does not transmit easily to humans and there is no evidence of human-to-human spread. There have been 67 deaths from 130 human cases to date (as at end November 2005) in the Asia Pacific region. The cases have been individuals who have very close and significant contact with poultry. When there is a flu pandemic, the concern is that this is the virus that will somehow change its genetic make-up and cause pandemic flu. At present, avian flu does not pose a risk to the vast majority of the human population. It is, however, not good news if you are a chicken.
Pandemic Flu
This occurs when a non-human influenza virus (e.g. Avian Flu virus) becomes able to
spread easily from human to human. For this to occur, a non-human influenza virus would need to mutate to a form that can easily infect and spread from human to human, or it would need to mix its genetic makeup with a human influenza virus in order to spread. We will not have immunity to a pandemic flu virus and as a result pandemic flu will be a more severe illness and affect large numbers of the population. Based on epidemiological data of previous flu pandemics along with public health statistics and calculations, a pandemic flu could affect 25% of the population. Experts disagree on this figure. It may be more or it may be less. There is currently no vaccine for pandemic flu. The pandemic flu virus needs to exist before such a vaccine can be effectively developed. Anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu is likely to be effective both for treatment and in preventing pandemic flu infection. Unlike seasonal flu, we are all likely to be at risk of pandemic flu, as immunity will not exist. We do not know when the next flu pandemic will be – it may be in 1 to 2 years, it may be 5, 10 or 20 years away. It will happen What Can We Do To Reduce The Risk Of Getting Flu?
Personal control measures are very important. Cough etiquette (coughing into a handkerchief or your arm is better than coughing into your hand as the virus can spread from person to person via surfaces), and hand-washing (before eating, after using the bathroom, regularly through the day), are very effective at reducing risk of transmission. With pandemic flu some Public Health risk reduction measures at a local, national and global level may include social distancing, isolation, travel restrictions, vaccination programmes (when available) and the use of anti-viral medication e.g. Tamiflu.


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