Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Influenza season could be worst in years

AUSTRALIA is facing its worst influenza season in years, as specialists warn that even young, fit adults could be affected.

This year, 3084 cases of influenza have been reported to health authorities -- compared with 1213 cases for the entire 2006. Queensland has been hardest hit, with 1414 cases this year, compared with 518 in NSW, 498 in Western Australia and 220 in Victoria.

Ian Barr, deputy director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, said this year's flu season was the most serious since 2003 and 1997.

Six people -- five children and a 37-year-old man -- have died of influenza this year. A report in The Daily Telegraph today reveals that influenza played a role in the death of 30-year-old heart transplant recipient Joseph David, from Sydney.

"It's certainly bigger this year than it has been in the last couple of years," Dr Barr said. "The last serious flu season was in 2003. We had very mild seasons in 2004, 2005 and 2006."

Experts are at a loss to explain why the outbreak is spreading so rapidly. "We've definitely seen a higher rate of cases in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth than in the past few years," said Canberra Hospital director of infectious diseases and microbiology Peter Collignon. "But it's not clear why. It's puzzling because there hasn't been a great change in the virus."

Dr Barr said people's immunity might have fallen in recent years. "We often see a serious season following after a few mild seasons in a row," he said. "That may be due to a lack of circulation of strains, and a lack of exposure to people with influenza for a few years. Their immunity wanes and then they come down with it. People think it only affects the young, sick and elderly, but ... everyone is susceptible."

Three children in Western Australia, one in Queensland and one in Victoria have died from influenza in the past five weeks.

On Thursday, Queenslander Glen Kindness -- a healthy 37-year-old -- died after developing flu-like symptoms.

"About 20 per cent of the population gets vaccinated," Dr Barr said. "I think we'd all like to see that rate higher."

Experts have long warned there is no way to vaccinate people against a new strain of influenza until that strain evolves. However, yesterday, researchers revealed they might have come up with a way to vaccinate people before an influenza pandemic.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed that 319 people have contracted H5N1 avian flu virus from contact with infected chickens, ducks and other fowl, and 192 of them have died. Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland claim they have discovered a way to anticipate how H5N1 may jump to humans and ways to respond to it.

They found a mutation that causes one strain of the H1N1 virus to infect birds, while another strain prefers humans. The team made the same alteration in an H5N1 virus, and vaccinated mice with this genetically engineered H5N1 DNA. They found an antibody that could neutralise both types of H5N1.

"It delivers a powerful blow against this virus and really hits it where it lives," said institute director and lead author Gary Nabel. If a vaccine could be developed to protect people against viruses with this mutation, it could be used before a pandemic even started, Dr Nabel said.

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