The flu season has started in Australia. Thankfully, due to increased measures as a result of COVID-19, we have seen fewer cases of influenza, but it is still important not to be complacent, as the flu virus is still in the community. Influenza remains of global concern with an attack rate in most years estimated at 5% to 10% in adults and 20% to 30% in children. Infection with influenza results in about 3-5 million cases of severe disease and 250,000-500,000 deaths annually worldwide.
Importantly, if you were to get influenza, it may increase your risk of acquiring COVID-19 and vice versa. As we have seen in the news in recent times, these new strains of COVID-19 have been particularly contagious and can spread even with limited contact between individuals. Pandemics caused by new influenza strains have typically occurred every 10 to 50 years throughout recorded history and are still recognised as a global threat. The pandemic of 1918 was particularly severe, resulting in approximately 40 million deaths worldwide.
As always with respiratory viruses, prevention is the best option. One way to help prevent influenza is by getting the influenza vaccination annually. You can get the flu vaccine at any time of year but generally it is recommended to get it just prior to the winter season (ideally April or May in the southern hemisphere). The flu vaccine is currently recommended to anyone from the age of 6 months and up. There is a government program that currently provides the flu vaccination free of charge in those under 5 years, over the age of 65 years and those in between with chronic medical illnesses that put them at risk of developing complications from influenza.
The flu vaccine may not always prevent you from catching the flu. It does, however, decrease your risk of getting influenza and may decrease the severity and length of your illness if you were to catch it. Nevertheless, there is an important need for new treatments for influenza that may offer novel mechanisms of action, improved efficacy and safety profiles or reduced risks of resistance.
Symptoms of influenza infections include: fever, sore throat, dry cough, headaches, muscle or joint pain and fatigue. These usually develop 1-3 days after becoming infected. Children may have other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. In the elderly, there may be no fever and the only signs and symptoms might be confusion, shortness of breath or the worsening of a chronic condition.
At present, the management of an acute influenza infection is usually supportive in nature. This mainly involves treating the symptoms, bed rest and maintaining adequate fluid intake. Symptomatic treatments include paracetamol or ibuprofen for fever and pain, decongestants (for a blocked nose), cough suppressants or expectorants. It is best to discuss with your doctor or pharmacist which is best for you, especially if you are taking other medications.
There are 2 antiviral medications available in Australia to treat flu. Generally, these are recommended in those with influenza who require hospital admission or are at risk of developing complications (ie young children, pregnant women, the elderly or those with chronic illness). The two available antivirals are oseltamivir (Tamiflu) that is a capsule and zanamir (Relenza) which is inhaled. Neither is listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule and are only available by private prescription.
However, there are novel therapies currently in development for the treatment of influenza. Here at AusTrials, we are excited to be involved in the study of a potential new treatment for influenza which has previously been used to treat asthma and allergic conditions. Contact AusTrials on 1300 190 841 to find out more.