The Big Bug from Downunder: How Afraid of “Aussie-Flu” Is Afraid Enough?

Communicable Diseases 293 views

The consensus is clear that you don't want to get “Aussie Flu,” which is not Australian but is H3N2, but fear is optional if you take the usual steps toward prevention.

The Big Bug from Downunder: How Afraid of “Aussie-Flu” Is Afraid Enough?

The mass media’s superlative meter is now set so irreversibly high that most reporting about the so-called “Aussie flu” reads like a remake of a 1950s Japanese horror film. That said, what does seem to be the case is that it’s a bad one, and you don’t want to get it.

What is “Aussie Flu,” and why the quotes around it?

The so-called Australian flu is an infection by the H3N2 virus. At this point in its coverage, it warrants saying that it was not “caused by Australia.” It surfaced in Australia during the country’s last winter (the Northern Hemisphere’s summer), where it resulted in some 170,000 cases (more than two-and-one-half times the previous year’s total) and 300 deaths.

Not to make light of either figure, neither approaches the counts of the great flu epidemics of the past, which claimed millions. The appropriate alerts this infection by H3N2 are bringing about have everything to do with containing this—and other—very bad, souped-up modern flu from becoming an epidemic.

Not only did that flu send people to the Accident and Emergency Departments of hospitals, those people arrived to standing-room-only conditions. The symptoms are the usual flu symptoms: fever, congestion, achy joints, lethargy, more difficult than usual breathing, nausea, vomiting and possible diarrhea.

Australian epidemiologists attributed the rise in cases to the relative ineffectiveness, at only 15-20%, of the available flu vaccine—signifying that some 85% of people vaccinated remained vulnerable to this strain of H3N2. Professor Peter Collignon of the Australian National University's Medical School was succinct in his analysis: “We need a better vaccine.”

Anecdotal accounts of people who have contracted it—both in Australia and now during the Northern Hemisphere winter—are that it is so miserable you want to do everything you can not to get it. And, as with all flus, there is the danger of such an infection to lead pneumonia, some forms of which are “new” in terms of their strains and, as such, increasingly resistant to known or available antibiotics.

Note: The use of antibiotics as treatment is in conjunction with pneumonia, NOT flu.

The spread

It’s hardly as though the Australian press ignored the H3N2 outbreak. It’s just that it would make no more sense for Australian media outlet to call an outbreak “Australian flu” than for American media to speak of the American Mississippi River. But it’s not an accident that Irish and British media are doing the bulk of the reporting on this new H3N2 outbreak because that’s where the Northern Hemisphere outbreaks are concentrated, for now.

The statistic vary of course, with respect to how current they are, but they run along these lines: An end-of-2017 report by the Irish Times stated that, by week 50 (through December 17), cases were higher than normal and still on the rise. Doctors in Britain and Ireland are preparing for an outbreak that could match Australia’s.

The vaccine prepared for Britain took H3N2 into account, but epidemiologists said it would be hard to assess its effectiveness early in the new outbreaks.

Renowned epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, was equally blunt in his “intelligent guess” about the implications for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole: "In general, we get in our season what the Southern Hemisphere got in the season immediately preceding us." 

Based on the reports from Australian, Ireland and Britain—and the experience from past flu seasons—the populations most at risk are children, medical workers, and the elderly (defined as people over 65).

What to do:

To be clear, No one is saying, ”Don’t get your flu shot this season, It doesn’t work.” Just don’t be naïve and assume that if you get the flu shot, you’re either immune or invulnerable to H3N2. Also keep in mind that flu vaccines are not fully effective for about ten days from vaccination.

Also, health professionals are speaking out against the usual, recurring myths. To wit: You can’t get the flu because you are cold.” But do, of course, stay warm in what appears to be a winter of life-threatening cold in the Northern Hemisphere.

If you feel ill and have any reason to think it is an H3N2 infection, seek medical help promptly.

Do not self-treat with medications. If you live in a country where antibiotics are over the counter or otherwise easily available, don’t make your own selection and treat yourself. The only thing you’re sure to do is increase the drug resistance of any bug that’s out there. If you live in a country where antibiotics are better controlled, and you happen to have some left-over antibiotics from some previous ailment for which you did not complete the course (as prescribed), do not take those.

If you know you’re in the middle of a serious outbreak and choose to wear a protective mask, only a “N95” will do, and it has to be worn properly and disposed of correctly and timely. (See our earlier post here.)

In general, act as if it is what it is: a highly infectious virus. As an extreme example, this is not the time for a lot of anonymous sex, particularly in group settings. But as important are the usual precautions, based on stepped-up hygiene.

Wash your hands (and face and other body parts as necessary), with an appropriate soap when possible, after every contact with a person or surface on which the virus might currently live. Yes, that means washing hands after every trip on public transportation if you touched anything on a transportation vehicle that anyone else might have touched. Same with door handles on public buildings, escalators, and so forth.

You don’t have to wash like Lady Macbeth, until your hands are raw and bleeding. But it wouldn’t be a bad rule of thumb to wash you r hands more often than you think you need to. If you want to wear something actually protective in public environments, consider wearing high-quality latex gloves.

If you travel, increase the precautions to the extent rationality suggests. The way to help contain an epidemic is not to help spread it.


Australian press coverage

Northern Hemisphere coverage


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