Don’t lie. Everyone has fantasised about that viral infection that spreads like wildfire and rapidly mutates to the point where it could out evolve both the human immune system and vaccinations. No, unfortunately this post is not on my Zombie Apocalypse plan, but instead the far more dangerous common cold; the influenza virus is a ticking mutating time bomb of potential human destruction.
Swine flu, bird flu, Spanish flu (which infected 500 million people and and killed about 100 million in 1918), are all different types of influenza virus. Our comparatively friendly neighbourhood influenza – the common cold and flu – can prove to be rather lethal. Usually due to common complications like pneumonia which are now proving harder and harder to treat with the rise of anti-biotic resistant bacteria. Colds and flu affect everyone; our health system takes a huge toll every flu season and the exceptionally nasty, influenzas have proven to be internationally feared; just 5 years ago my little brother was almost quarantined on a stopover in Bangkok thanks to bird-flu and a slightly high temperature.
But never fear – science is here!
A paper published in March this year released an exciting, promising new way of protecting us against current influenzas and potentially more damaging strains to come.
The current success of influenza as a pathogen is down to its ability to rapidly mutate or change – allowing it to go undetected by your immune system, even though you’ve already defeated a cold before. This same ability to change means that, unlike other vaccinations which can last for a decade or even a lifetime, vaccinations against influenza (aka the flu) shot need to be completely re-made each year to combat the ever changing influenza virus. The current flu shot works as regular vaccinations do, by introducing dead or harmless virus’ into your body for your natural immune system to learn to recognise the virus for if you are later infected, allowing your immune system to fight it off at the slightest trace. Yet with influenza changing so rapidly most of the time the annual flu shots simply can’t keep up. Until now.
The new defence against influenza works very differently to the traditional flu shot; it is a host-targeted medicine to prevent influenza infection in the first place. The treatment masks or shields special receptors in our airways, influenza viruses can only infect their victims (hosts) through these receptors. This also means that the treatment will work for current and future influenza viruses, unlike the current flu shot which becomes out-dated as the virus changes. The new treatment has been 100% effective in mice when administered before a deadly dose of various influenzas, and was partially effective when administered up to a week after infection.
This new approach is incredibly better suited to influenza defence than anything we have so far and could mean (after the many years of safety tests and trials) the end of those pesky colds and potential future plagues. Needless to say, I’m pumped.