Science - January 10, 2011

Even virologists are still shaking hands

The annual flu epidemic is approaching. The virus spreads like mad right after the Christmas holidays with all the lectures and New Year's receptions. Four questions for virologist Dr Richard Kormelink.

Should we stop shaking hands?
'Oh no. Even we virologists usually carry on shaking hands. According to microbiologists, hands actually have an environment that discourages bacteria and viruses. Also, the flu virus is mainly transmitted through aerosols while talking or sneezing. Colds do transmit the virus through hands, though, if there is snot left on them after blowing your nose.'

So you should get a flu jab?
'There is not usually much point if you are healthy and young as you have good resistance. You can always catch the flu virus and that will then ensure that your immune system remains triggered properly. You are better off sticking to grandmother's advice if you want to stay healthy as that will give you good resistance. If the flu still gets you, it will take roughly three to seven days before you recover. You will benefit from a vaccination, though, if you are already in a weak condition.'

Is there a vaccine that protects you from all flu viruses?
'Virologists certainly wish there was. However, influenza is an RNA virus that is constantly mutating slightly. Each year it appears in a new guise. Neuraminidase and hemagglutinin are proteins in the virus and they undergo very subtle changes so that it manages to get through our resistance system every time. A vaccine is made based on predictions about which flu viruses are likely to cause an epidemic in the coming months. It remains a gamble that is sometimes more successful than at other times.'

What was so special about swine flu?
'That was one of those flu variants in a new guise where we didn't have any protection. People hadn't anticipated swine flu and so it took some time before the production of vaccines was underway. But fortunately the virus was very mild. It only led to 18 thousand deaths worldwide, compared with 300 to 500 thousand for the normal annual seasonal bout of flu.