Winter is coming. And with it the flu. I am in Australia, where they have just had one of their worst flu season, with 722 deaths, twice the normal number. Children under the age of five in particular were hit hard.
Experts I spoke to believed that the actual number of deaths is likely to be much higher because many deaths, especially among the elderly, are attributed to other causes.
The flu season was not only more dangerous, but also started earlier than normal – in April, which is autumn – and finally reached a few months ago, in July.
British doctors are concerned that the flu viruses that caused death and destruction in Australia will soon find their way to the UK.
So what can you do?
The best way to protect yourself or your children against the flu is to have a flu shot, especially if you are at high risk.
Although the flu season in the UK normally only starts in November, there is a risk that if it follows the Australian pattern it will start earlier (stock image)
Although the flu season in the UK normally does not start until November, there is a risk that it will start earlier in the Australian pattern.
So it would be a good idea to be vaccinated earlier rather than later.
But there is a problem.
The World Health Organization normally tells flu vaccine manufacturers against which strains of strain they should protect us early in the year. This time, they delayed their statements to ensure that the vaccines used contained the strains that caused Australian flu.
But the knock-on effect of having to wait until the chefs give the thumbs up is that some GP practices may not receive vaccines until the end of November.
If your doctor currently has no vaccines, don't panic. Instead, spend the next month making a real effort to increase your probiotics-rich foods, also known as & # 39; healthy bacteria & # 39 ;, and, something you may never have heard of, prebiotics.
There are good indications that this will improve the effectiveness of the vaccine when you have it.
HOW THESE GOOD BACTERIA CAN HELP
Probiotics are living bacteria that occur in fermented foods such as live yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are compounds present in fiber-rich foods.
They are not digested, but instead feed the "good" microbes in your gut, allowing them to thrive. They are found in foods such as garlic, onions and oats.
When viruses invade your body, your immune system responds by producing antibodies. These stick to and help destroy the virus. Some of the & # 39; good & # 39; Bacteria in your gut – known as the microbiome – bind directly to immune cells, making them more active.
When a vaccine, such as the flu vaccine, is introduced into the body, a similar process occurs. The injection contains inactivated flu viruses. These cannot make us sick. But they & # 39; prime & # 39; the immune system to make antibodies that recognize and kill those strains of the virus.
Good bacteria in the gut play a role in making these immune cells more effective in performing their work. So having a healthy, diverse microbiome speeds up the power of the vaccine.
A recent study with more than 600 people concluded that consuming pre- or probiotics increased the antibody response to flu viruses by about 20 percent.
Good bacteria in the gut play a role in making these immune cells more effective in performing their work. So, having a healthy, diverse microbiome speeds up the power of the vaccine (stock image)
HOW ASIAN ASIAN FLU KILLED ME
Every winter flu kills around 800 people in the UK. Rarely is there a pandemic that floods the world and kills millions. Pandemics arise when a new strain of the flu virus appears – a species for which we have little natural resistance. It often happens when a virus finds a way to jump from us to another animal, such as a bird or a pig.
The largest pandemic of recent times was the so-called Spanish flu pandemic. It started in 1918, distributed by soldiers who returned home after the First World War and it is thought that between 40 million and 100 million people died.
I was born in Calcutta, India, in March 1957, just as a new, deadly strain of the influenza virus known as Asian flu emerged from China.
It probably started in a bird, spread to a pig and then infected a human. It reached Calcutta in July 1957 and nearly killed me. My mother says that I was extremely ill and that it was touching for a while. I recovered but others were less fortunate – nearly two million died.
A few years ago I had a blood test for a TV program I made about the flu. The test showed that I still had traces of antibodies against the Asian flu.
A few years ago I had a blood test for a TV program I made about the flu. The test showed that I still had traces of antibodies against the Asian flu
A few years later, in 1968, there was another pandemic, the flu of Hong Kong. I was living in Hong Kong at the time (my father worked in banking, which is why the family lived abroad), an 11-year-old child, and my blood again shows that I was infected. This outbreak was relatively benign and only killed & # 39; a million people.
The last major epidemic of the 20th century was the Russian flu, which struck Britain in 1977. I was a student at Oxford University and my blood shows again that I got it and successfully fought it.
However, the Russian flu was not really new. It was actually the revival of the Spanish flu or H1N1, which people thought was extinct. Fortunately it appears to have been mutated in a benign form and although it spread rapidly, it did not kill on such a scale this time.
There is another serious flu pandemic, popularly known in 2009 as Mexican flu. I avoided that, but it affected about 20 percent of the world's population and killed more than 200,000.
Nobody knows when the next Big One will strike, or how bad it will be, but a recent WHO report said it is not a question of whether it will happen, but when.
ARE WE READY FOR THE FOLLOWING?
The good news is that we have learned a lot from previous pandemics and are better prepared for the next one.
We have antiviral drugs and antibiotics that will help us deal with the secondary bacterial infections that have killed so many people in previous outbreaks.
We are also much quicker than before in identifying new viruses and developing vaccines to combat them.
A promising new technology that could be a big help is creating a new type of vaccine, known as a DNA vaccine. They only contain one gene from a virus that then helps the immune system to recognize and fight that virus in the future.
They are, theoretically, faster and cheaper to make, in larger quantities, and are easier to transport and store – and as I have explained, with the flu vaccine, timing is essential. The first human trials with DNA vaccines are being conducted in the US.
Finding a way to dramatically shorten the time needed to create and spread an effective vaccine against a new pandemic can save millions of lives when the next one strikes.
- You can find recipes to boost your microbiome in my book The Clever Guts Diet (Short Books, £ 8.99).
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