Why flu is important
In the majority of people influenza (or flu as most of us call it) causes a mild illness but in some it can be extremely serious and even fatal; making it an important infectious disease. For this reason public health doctors and researchers are trying to understand the best ways of detecting flu as it circulates in the community.
Most of the current flu detection systems rely on people with flu visiting their GP or a hospital doctor. However, for the majority of people, flu is a mild self-limiting illness that doesn’t require a trip to the GP. This means that detecting an early increase in flu amongst the general population is harder because at the start of the upsurge there are only small numbers of people going to see their GP or a hospital doctor.
We can be fairly sure that we will see a peak in the number of people getting flu during the winter at some point every year in England. Less certain is when that peak will occur and how big it will be. Last year we saw the lowest levels of flu recorded in England for the last 25 years; demonstrating this lack of predictability perfectly.
Deciphering school data
This project involves monitoring data on school absences due to illness. Students with flu will often be absent from school and not all of them will visit their GP, especially those with a mild illness, and so we think the illness absence data might increase before current flu surveillance systems. In theory, the fact that there are a lot more of these mild cases potentially makes any increase in the number of people with flu easier to spot, but it’s just a theory and one that we need to test.
Last year’s flu findings
The low levels last year meant we weren’t able to use school illness absence data to detect peaks in flu activity earlier than existing surveillance systems. We hope this at least provided the students involved in the project with a good illustration of what can happen in the real world of research – it can go wrong regardless of well thought out plans.
This year’s flu season
As we didn’t get a chance to answer our main research question, we’d like to try again this winter. We think this study is important because if we can detect the peak earlier, it would allow public health doctors across the country to be more prepared for the upsurge in people with flu. This would provide them with more time to ensure appropriate facilities are in place for those who do become very unwell, and attempt to reduce the spread of the influenza virus in the community at times when there are high levels.
However, we don’t know if the project will work and there are drawbacks to using the school data like the fact that we don’t know whether it is picking up sickness absences due to flu or another common condition like the winter vomiting bug (norovirus). Running the project again this year will help us determine how absence due to illness is affected by other illnesses circulating in schools. Students will be able to analyse the data with us and let us know if they’ve got some explanations for trends in their illness absence data by writing Lab Logs.
As we’re nearly at the start of the flu season, I’m really looking forward to start collecting and analysing data with you on 1st October. Will we be able to spot early signs of flu in the wider community? Lets see what happens…