Australian Flu: Cause for concern or media hoax?

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This winter, a new deadly flu virus is causing misery across the northern hemisphere after wreaking havoc in Australia’s winter of 2016. According to some sources, this flu strain is more deadly than the swine flu pandemic which killed over 200,000 people worldwide. If you look hard enough, you will find our ever-reliable media graciously telling us the symptoms of the killer “Australian Flu” and what to do when we recognise them. However, unfortunately, or rather fortunately, this could not be any further from the truth.

The type of flu dubbed “Australian Flu” by the media is also known as the H3N2 strain. Influenza strains are categorised depending on how deadly they are from A to C, with A being the most potent. So, if we give our Australian friend (enemy) its full title we arrive at “A(H3N2)”, meaning this strain definitely poses a health risk. Similarly, and perhaps more worryingly, this year’s vaccine is only around 25% effective at preventing the flu. Australian Flu gets its name and reputation for causing double the number of reported cases and around 600 more deaths down under than most flu seasons previously, and already deaths in the UK are three times higher than this time last year.

However, unluckily for our doomsday predictors, in truth there is actually little cause for concern. The H3N2 strain was present last year and, similarly to most flu cases, it is only the old and young who are at risk. Despite the virus being effective at overcoming the vaccine, catching the flu is by no means a death warrant as, despite the 250 deaths in the UK, there have been over 24,000 reported cases and most people will recover without the need for prescribed medication.  Additionally, there are also issues with the way the H3N2 strain has been portrayed. By naming it “Australian Flu”, comparisons are drawn to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 which famously killed more people than the entirety of the First World War. This is untrue as the most common cause of death in Spanish Flu cases was pneumonia which we can now treat effectively with antibiotics. Likewise, recent reports suggest that the flu originated from Hong Kong rather than Australia, however, that is not the main problem with coverage of the flu. As influenza is a fast-evolving disease, our vaccines have to develop and change annually. Therefore, every year scientists look at what strains have been most prominent in the southern hemisphere the same year to try to work out how to make an effective vaccine.  So, logically every year as a nation we have to endure Australian Flu.

Ultimately, this winter the elderly and the young could be more susceptible to this winter’s dominant flu strain and, despite its apparent ineffectiveness, I would encourage anyone to get a vaccine as they are still more effective against different strains of flu. However, I urge you not to start repenting your sins but, instead, look forward to next year when the same news stories about “killer flu” will be recycled and you will be able to read them with a small cynical smile.