A group of PhD students and researchers who share a passion for communicating science have launched a new blog site called the Scouse Science Alliance.
Established and run by members of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool, the blog is designed to explain biology-based topics clearly and without the technical jargon that can make science inaccessible.
Here, in a shortened version of one of the first posts on the site, Nicola Beesley explores the influenza virus and the vaccines designed to fight it:
“Flu, short for influenza, is an infectious disease caused by influenza viruses. It is not the same as the common cold, which is caused by different virus types – usually rhinoviruses or coronaviruses. Flu usually comes on quickly, compared to the common cold, and makes you too unwell to continue your usual activities. Despite the common “man flu” terminology, surveys show that women with flu usually report worse symptoms than men.
“The symptoms of flu can vary and may include a sudden fever, cough, headache, tiredness, chills, sore throat, a runny or blocked nose, and sneezing. These symptoms usually peak after two to three days and you will start to feel better within five to eight days, although sometimes a cough can linger for several weeks.
“There are 3 to 5 million cases of flu each year around the world. What’s more, influenza can kill – it is estimated that, worldwide, there are half a million deaths annually.
“However, the infection and death rate can rise to many millions of people if the spread of the virus is such that it reaches pandemic proportions. A pandemic usually refers to a new disease that infects a large proportion of the human population, over multiple continents or even worldwide.
“The influenza virus is transmitted when droplets containing the virus are released into the air when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. The virus can also be spread on hands contaminated with the virus. This often leads to advertising campaigns telling us to catch the virus with a tissue (CATCH IT), throw the tissue away (BIN IT) and then wash our hands (KILL IT) to help prevent the spread.
(Image shows an electron micrograph of an H7N9 influenza A virus. Courtesty of CDC / Cynthia S. Goldsmith and Thomas Rowe).
“Treatment is generally supportive, although antivirals are used in some cases. As the old adage goes prevention is often easier than cure and the main way of preventing flu is via vaccination.
“There are three types of influenza virus: A, B and C. The most common is type A. Type A viruses are further classified by two proteins found on their surface: haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). There are 16 variations of the H protein and 9 of the N protein. These are numbered and give rise to the naming of influenza viruses as H1N1, H5N1 etc. These proteins provide a target for some antiviral drugs and act as antigens, to which the immune system develops antibodies, after infection or vaccination.
“Vaccines are made using live attenuated (weakened) or dead viruses. In recent years, flu vaccines have been made up of two type A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2) and one type B virus.
“It is important to be vaccinated annually. This is because the virus species that cause flu are constantly evolving into new strains (the microbial equivalent of different dog breeds). In addition, the ratios of the different strains can change from one year to the next. Therefore, the strains used in the flu vaccines are frequently updated so they are effective against these changes.
“Other animals such as birds, pigs, horses and dogs also have their own variations of the influenza virus. Occasionally these viruses can infect people but they are not easily transmitted between humans.
“However, the danger is that, if one of these viruses evolved so that it could be transmitted between humans, it could start a new pandemic. This would be most likely to happen if an animal became infected with a human influenza virus at the same time as one of its own influenza viruses. The viruses could recombine to produce a virus that was novel to people (i.e. no immunity existed) and could be easily transmitted from one person to another.
“The most recent flu pandemic occurred in 2009 and was caused by an H1N1 influenza virus. This pandemic was commonly known as the ‘swine flu pandemic’ because it was produced from a recombination of bird, swine and human flu viruses.
“In light of all this, continued research is important, but there is also an onus on the public to protect themselves by getting vaccinated, and helping to prevent the spread of infection by following basic hygiene procedures like hand washing.”
Click here to see the full article.
To view more posts like this, opinion pieces and a popular ‘A-Z of Science’ please visit the Scouse Science Alliance website. For more information please contact editor Ian Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.