Flu season’s coming — Are you ready for it?

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The statistics vary from year to year, but influenza along with other respiratory disease is always on Indonesia’s top 10 killer lists, as well as a pandemic that sweeps much of the world. A “seasonal” affliction, the risks usually intensify in late autumn or early winter, so now is the time to get ready.

The good news is that recent studies suggest a new approach to its prevention is already under way. It is too soon to call your physician for an appointment, but at least 12 companies and 17 governments globally are now developing vaccines in 28 different clinical trials that, if successful, could turn a deadly pandemic infection into a non-lethal one.

The facts

The esteemed Merck Manual of Medical Information defines influenza as “a viral infection that causes a fever, runny nose, cough, headache, a feeling illness (malaise), and inflammation of the lining of nose and airways.”

Although many respiratory illnesses have the same symptoms—including the common cold—the influenza A or B viruses lead quickly to severity unmatched by them. The virus is spread by inhaling droplets that have been coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. Handling infected household articles may also be transmit the disease.

Preventing the flu

There are three main ways to prevent flu: good hygiene, such as handwashing, the flu vaccination and antiviral medication.

The vaccines, which usually are changed from year to year, are not 100% effective because they don’t work against every possible type of virus, as this year’s usually is aimed at strains dominant in the previous season or currently on the rise in some areas.

Under certain circumstances, taking antiviral medicines may be recommended by a physician—especially for those in locations where flu already is being reported, or if people at risk are over 65, pregnant, or have a medical condition that puts them at increased risk, such as diabetes or diseases of the heart, lung or kidney, or a neurological illness.

Good news coming?

The goal is to find a “universal flu vaccine” that protects against a wide variety of influenza strains, eliminating the guesswork attached to deciding which of the old viruses might be returning. Toward this end, physicians at the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., have created a cocktail incorporating four of the 16 different subtypes of an influenza virus protein called hemaggluinin (H).

Two of these, H1 and H3, are typically found in human seasonal influenza viruses, and two, H5 and H7, are from avian (bird) influenza viruses that can also infect people. Early success with animals (mice) points to an early start of tests on larger mammals ad then humans.

Other studies developed two different vaccines. Both vaccines were able to protect mice against what would usually be a lethal dose of flu, and one vaccine reduced fever symptoms in monkeys. Both vaccines were based on the principle of attacking specific sites on the virus that are less likely to mutate as new strains come along.

“We can’t yet be certain that the vaccines will be effective or safe until they are tested on humans, and more animal and lab research will be needed before this can be started,” said the BBC in its report. “However, it seems likely that this avenue of research could eventually lead to better flu vaccines at some point in the future.”

In the meantime…

Get vaccinated with what’s currently available…and remember that protection doesn’t begin for two weeks following inoculation—so antibodies will be highest during the peak flu months, November through March.

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BIMC Hospital Nusa Dua
The first hospital in Indonesia with accreditation from Australian Council on Healthcare Standard International  (ACHSI)

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