The media has given much coverage to the potential for a Flu Pandemic affecting the UK at some time in the future. The subject is complex and although there has been a great deal of expert advice made available it easy to be confused over the nature of the risk from this new strain of the Flu virus. A few simple facts will help you put the nature of the problem in perspective, the first being that the world has had similar Pandemics in the past, many of which have proved not much worse than the usual bouts of flu the population suffers from each winter. The concern is that the present outbreak might be a new strain that will require a new vaccine to offer good protection and the development and delivery of a new vaccine takes time. Here are a few facts that you might find helpful:
Pandemic– A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a disease, with outbreaks or epidemics occurring in many countries and in most regions of the world.
Influenza - Influenza is an acute viral infection characterised by the sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, muscle pains, severe prostration and usually cough, with or without a sore throat or other respiratory symptoms. The acute symptoms last for about a week, although full recovery may take longer. In most years in the UK, influenza occurs predominantly during a six to eight week period during the winter. For most people, this ‘seasonal’ influenza is an unpleasant but self-limiting and not life endangering illness, but in some people it may be more severe, or complicated by secondary bacterial infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. The very young, the elderly and people with underlying diseases such as heart or chest disease are particularly at risk of serious illness from influenza. Without interventions such as annual influenza immunisation, the elderly and those of all ages in disease-based risk groups suffer significant morbidity and mortality even in a nonpandemic year. An estimated 12,000, mainly elderly, people die each year from seasonal influenza in England and Wales.
Avian “bird” Flu – We need to differentiate between the virus that infects birds and a new mutation of that strain that may affect the human population. Head of Immunisation for England, Dr David Salisbury, has reassured the public that the risk of 'bird flu' being transmitted to humans is very low and that the Department of Health is taking all the right steps to protect the public. Avian influenza (bird flu) is a disease of birds caused by influenza viruses closely related to human influenza viruses. It is an important disease economically for poultry farmers because of losses in poultry flocks. Transmission to humans in close contact with poultry or other birds occurs rarely and only with some strains of avian influenza. The potential for transformation of avian influenza into a form that both causes severe disease in humans and spreads easily from person to person is a great concern for world health.
Precautions and treatment – Much has been made about the Government procurement of anti-viral drugs (principally “Tamiflu”); which the Government is stockpiling in large quantities. This treats the symptoms but must be taken with care and preferably with clinical supervision. The best precautions are those that apply to all flu viruses:
Do not cough or sneeze over people – cover the mouth and nose, use tissues and handkerchiefs and remember to dispose of these safely.
Wash hands frequently – the virus does not stay airborne for long and most cross contamination comes from touching infected surfaces then putting the hand to your face. The virus does not survive long outside a host but regular cleaning helps.
If you have the flu consult your GP, but listen to the advice that the media will broadcast on how to get medical help, rest and take plenty of fluids. Paracetamol may help the symptoms. For most of us this is the best policy, for more severe cases or people with other medical conditions the NHS has plans in place to cope.
If a variant of the “bird” flu that is easily passed within the human population does emerge a vaccine to counter it will quickly be developed but it will be sometime before it becomes available in quantity. In the meantime the usual precautions for protection against the existing flu viruses that strike each winter should continue.
Further information on national plans to deal with a Flu Pandemic information can be found at the Department of Health’s website.
Nhs Guidance for You and Your Family:
- Family Guidance (PDF Document, 1 Mb)
Last updated: Wed 24th April, 2013 @ 14:44