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Influenza (flu) is an illness we have all heard of, and we hear about it before each winter begins. The news tells us it is putting extra pressure on the NHS over the winter months. We see signs everywhere about getting vaccinated each year and information thrown at us about why it is important. But what is the flu? How is it different to the common cold? Why is vaccination important? Does the vaccine work, and why is it yearly?

According to Flu Camp, influenza was first recorded by Hippocrates around 400BC. It was described as a winter illness that resulted in a cough, sore throat, and temperature. There have been recorded epidemics of flu like illness since records began and it is thought flu itself is as old as humankind.

The first recorded flu pandemic was The Spanish Flu in 1918. It is believed that advances in world travel and soldiers being moved from country to country allowed the virus to spread in a way it never had before. In 1918, the first case was reported early spring in Kansas, USA. By late spring it had spread across Europe, by summer it had mutated and was more ferocious than ever. Estimates suggest 40% of the world’s population was infected and it resulted in up to fifty million deaths.

The first flu vaccine was created in the 1940’s but it wasn’t until the late 1960’s the public health campaigns to encourage vaccination began. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA, previously Public Health England) estimate that between 2015 and 2020 the flu vaccine prevented up to 52% of cases.

The efficacy of the flu vaccine varies each year due to mutations in the influenza virus, as result the vaccine needs to change every year to keep cases as low as possible. The World Health Organisation has flu centres all over the world which gather information on the flu virus. This information is then sent to the main five centres in UK, Australia, Japan, USA, and China. Scientists from each of the five centres meet annually to determine which strains of flu will be most prevalent in the upcoming season and adapt the vaccine to suit.

The flu is a virus that is spread by droplets from an infected person. While severe disease affects the older population and those who have underlying health conditions or are immunosuppressed it does also affect young children. In 2019 there were an estimated 20,000 deaths attributed to the virus, there was also a higher-than-average death rate in the 5 to 11-year-old age group in 2019.

People can mistake the ‘common cold’ for the flu. They have similar symptoms such as a sore throat, runny nose, and a cough. However, cold symptoms come on gradually whereas the flu will come on suddenly and usually with fatigue. It is said if there is a £50 note on the floor outside and you can go and pick it up, then you do not have the flu.

Influenza can also be spread by a person who is showing no symptoms, but it can also lead to a hospital admission and more serious illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis. While for most it will be a mild disease for some it will be severe and cause death or sepsis.

It is vital that people are vaccinated to protect themselves and the most vulnerable in our society.

Prevention is better than cure, get vaccinated!

Written by Jodie Convey RSCN, Clinical Development Manager, ECG Training, Wednesday 13th January 2022