Kevan Christie: This year's flu isn't Australian

The current furore around the outbreak of so-called Aussie flu has led to outlandish comparisons with the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 which claimed the lives of around 50 million people.

The take-up of the flu vaccine has been too low (Picture: SWNS)
The take-up of the flu vaccine has been too low (Picture: SWNS)

Like hurricanes an outbreak of flu isn’t deemed to be serious unless it is given a name – in this case a country with a tenuous link to the virus.

Spanish flu, the H1N1 strain of the bug, was given its name primarily due to the fact that it received greater press attention after it moved from France to Spain in November 1918. The Spanish were not involved in the First World War and had not imposed wartime censorship like the Allied forces.

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The epicentre of worldwide pandemic is actually thought to have been a major troop staging post and hospital in war-torn France.

Aussie flu, a series of H3N2 viruses, was particularly strong in Australia and Hong Kong from June through to August last year. It is said to be responsible for the death of 300 Australians, while 170,000 people were affected.

These viruses were seen in the UK during the winters of 2014/15 and 2016/17 and in each of these two winters it had a considerable impact in Scotland. So it’s not new and it’s not really got anything particularly to do with Australia – it’s basically the flu.

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The World Health Organisation says the current rate of influenza in the UK is considered to be ‘medium activity’ at present and higher than the rate seen at the same time last year. Not exactly a pandemic then.

In Scotland, the flu rate for the first week of 2018 was four times higher than the same week last year with statistics from Health Protection Scotland showing 107 Scots in every 100,000 of the population were diagnosed with the virus in the week ending January 7. New figures for the flu are out later today so we’ll know if the virus is spreading.

Tragically, eight Scots have died as a result of complications caused by the disease, including 18-year-old Bethany Walker, from Applecross in the Highlands.

Other than the most vulnerable groups, the flu will leave the rest of us miserable but, as the NHS suggests, plenty of bed rest, staying hydrated and using Ibuprofen for any aches or pains should see you over the worst.

However, questions remain around this year’s vaccination process in Scotland.

While children receive a protective nasal spray at school and pensioners are entitled to the jab on the NHS, adults who do not have long-term health problems are not routinely innoculated.

NHS staff are also offered a free vaccination but this year only 40 per cent of them have had the jab.

This is lower than chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood would like but she believes this is something that should not be mandatory and I tend to agree.

Apart from in war-zones, employers can’t be sticking needles in the arms of their staff, even if they think it’s for the greater good.

What’s of wider concern is the lack of take-up in the under 65s considered “at risk”. This year’s vaccine is believed to be a good match for the current strains of flu virus, but has been met with general apathy.

Professor Harry McQuillan, chief executive of Community Pharmacy Scotland, has said there has been a “missed opportunity” in not getting pharmacists to administer the vaccinations.

Predictably, this all comes back to a familiar tale of under-pressure GPs and NHS staff struggling to cope.

Here’s hoping lessons are learnt next winter.