The worst flu epidemic for 50 years is on the way to the UK

The UK is on the brink of one of the worst flu epidemics for half a century. Here's what you need to know about the so-called 'Aussie flu', with advice from experts including Dr Richard Pebody, Head of Respiratory at Public Health England

Health experts have warned that Britain could soon be dealing with one the worst flu epidemics for 50 years. The warning comes after a winter in Australia that saw over 170,000 cases of influenza. Now the so-called ‘Aussie flu’ virus – which caused a number of deaths in Australia, including mother of two Jennifer Thew – could spread to the UK.

Here’s what you need to know if the H3N2 strain does come here, including treatment and prevention tactics from Dr Richard Pebody, Head of Respiratory at Public Health England.

What is Aussie flu?

Aussie flu is a particularly vicious winter bug, also known as H3N2. The virus brings on severe flu symptoms, including a sore throat, headache and fever, though sufferers have also complained of arthritic-style joint pain and fatigue. In some cases the virus has led to additional complications, such as pneumonia. Without complications, the flu tends to last for about a week. Aussie flu – or the H3N2 subtype – is particularly dangerous for the elderly, whose immune systems are more vulnerable.

What are the fundamental differences between a cold and flu?

‘A cold is usually a milder respiratory illness than that caused by flu’, says Dr Richard Pebody, Head of Respiratory at Public Health England. ‘While cold symptoms can make you feel unwell for a day or two, flu symptoms can make you feel quite ill for a few days to longer. With flu you are also more likely to have a high temperature and systemic symptoms such as shivering and muscle aches. The flu can also result in more serious complications such as pneumonia, or trigger underlying heart and lung problems, which often results in hospitalisation.’

What are the common misconceptions people have about flu?

‘Some people believe that flu and flu like symptoms can be treated with antibiotics’ says Dr Pebody. ‘However flu is caused by a virus and not bacteria and therefore antibiotics will not help. The exception is if you develop a secondary bacterial infection later in the infection. That’s why if you are not improving after a week or so, or if you have underlying health problems, you should consult your doctor if you think you have the flu.’

Is there any way Aussie flu can be prevented from coming to the UK?

Due to global travel the flu virus is very likely to be spread to the UK from Australia this winter. ‘There is no point in trying to close the borders’ Professor Robert Dingwall, a health expert at Nottingham Trent university told the Daily Express. ‘It’s almost inevitable this will come to us. This is potentially the worst winter since the Hong Kong flu outbreak of 1968. Lots of people have been very badly affected in Australia and whilst their mortality rates are not out yet, we suspect this is a more severe strain than most other years.’

Does this mean the H3N2 strain is definitely coming here?

Not necessarily. Paul Cosford, Medical Director, Public Health England says, ‘The strains of flu circulating in Australia this past winter have led to a significant increase in cases but it’s too early to know which will be the dominant strains of flu to circulate in England. Each year the World Health Organization reviews the circulating strains of flu and recommends which flu strains should go in the vaccine. It’s really important that as many eligible people as possible get their jab which is the best way to protect everyone from flu.’

Is there an Aussie flu vaccine?

There is, but as Dr Chris Steele explained on This Morning, there’s a question over how effective it will be. A vaccine against Aussie flu was developed in the UK in March, made using the virus hitting Australia, but it’s estimated that by time the flu comes to the UK the strain will have mutated, potentially putting ‘huge pressure’ on the NHS. However, he still recommended that as many people as possible, particularly over 65s or pregnant women, get a preventative jab (Boots offer free vaccinations for people at risk.) Dr Richard Pebody says, ‘Typically effectiveness of a flu vaccine is in the range of 40-60%. If the vaccine effectiveness is 40%, this means that 40 people in every 100 who have the vaccine will be protected against flu.’

Aussie flu

What else can you do to prevent catching Aussie flu?

NHS guidelines recommend obvious but simple prevention tactics: washing your hands regularly with soap and water, using tissues to cover your mouth when you sneeze, putting used tissues in the bin as soon as possible and regularly cleaning surfaces such as keyboards, phones and door handles. They also recommend staying off work if you feel unwell to prevent the flu’s spread. ‘The best practical measure to avoid the flu is to practice good hygiene’, says Dr Pebody. ‘An easy example of this is the “Catch it, bin it, kill it” campaign – when you cough or sneeze, catch it in a tissue, bin the tissue, and then wash your hands after.’

What are the best ways to deal with Aussie flu if we do catch it?

‘Flu is characterised by a high temperature, chills, headache, aching muscles and joint pain and fatigue’ says Dr Pebody. ‘For most healthy people, flu symptoms can make you feel so exhausted and unwell that you have to stay in bed and rest until you get better. If you’re otherwise fit and healthy, there’s usually no need to see a doctor if you have flu-like symptoms. The best remedy is to rest at home, keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower a high temperature and relieve aches if necessary. However most prescribed flu remedies already contain these, so be careful not to exceed the recommended dose.’

How is the UK preparing for the flu’s arrival?

Last month, NHS chief Simon Stevens announced the aim of freeing up 3,000 beds. ‘The signs from Australia and New Zealand, who are just coming out of winter, are that it has been a heavy flu season and many of the hospitals have struggled’ he said, ‘In some parts of this country there are real pressures, so we are using the next six to eight weeks to really be clear what the plan needs to be. The plan to free up 2,000 to 3,000 beds relies on significant improvement in that area.’

Is there an explanation for why flu pandemics happen?

‘At the moment, we see two influenza A subtypes that circulate in the human population – A(H3N2) and A(H1N1) pdm09’ says Dr Pebody. ‘A flu pandemic is when a different flu A subtype emerges and circulates in humans. As the population is not immune to this new virus, pandemics will cause a sharp rise in cases of the flu. This does not happen frequently and there is a lot of preparation that the UK and other countries have made to detect such pandemics early and put in place measures to try to mitigate their impact.’

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