The year’s wet and cold season begins in October along with the annual flu season. After an extraordinarily severe flu wave in 2017/18, experts are warning that the flu should not be underestimated.
100 years ago, the Spanish flu took the lives of 25 million people. Today, the influenza virus still poses a danger: Worldwide, three to five million people contract influenza every year, and up to 500,000 die from the illness. Serious epidemics recur regularly, one of the reasons being that the viruses spread quickly by globalization. According to the Robert Koch Institute, the flu wave of 2017/18 was the strongest since 2001. There were an estimated 9 million influenza-related doctor visits in Germany alone, and more people fell ill in Australia and the USA than in years.
Too few vaccinated
To keep a flu infection from becoming a flu wave, the WHO recommends a vaccination rate of 75 %. Unfortunately only one third of the population was vaccinated in the at-risk group of those over 60. Since influenza viruses have a strong ability to mutate and new types of viruses regularly appear, the vaccine must be updated every year. For this reason, the effectiveness of the vaccine can fluctuate from year to year; nonetheless, vaccination is still the most important protective measure against the flu. This year, a new regulation has been issued to make the vaccine more effective. For the first time, statutory health insurance will be paying for a quadrivalent vaccine that fights four instead of three different viral strains. The vaccine is recommended for everyone above 60, the chronically ill, pregnant woman and medical personnel.
The flu or a flu-like infection?
Even though a cold is frequently termed a “flu-like infection” it is not the true flu. However, a distinction is frequently impossible judging by the symptoms alone. In order to quickly make a diagnosis and avoid further infection, laboratory investigations are needed. Real time PCR tests make it possible to detect influenza viruses, and a specific and sensitive distinction can be made between different types. Such a differentiation helps in the selection of an appropriate antiviral therapy, and also helps monitor the spread of different viral strains.