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New flu test: One drop of blood could save your life

Australian researchers have developed a world first test to identify which influenza patients will need urgent, life-saving, medical treatment.

The High-risk Influenza Screen Test (HIST) measures ‘an early warning signal’ released by the patient’s body into their blood to ‘kick start’ their immune system’s fight against the infection.

The test, developed by Dr Benjamin Tang, a doctor from the Department of Intensive Care Medicine, Nepean Hospital and medical researcher at The Westmead Institute for Medical Research, needs only a single drop of blood and a few hours to predict, with 91 percent accuracy, which influenza patients will develop potentially deadly secondary infections, such as pneumonia.

Previously doctors could only test for influenza infection but didn’t know which patients would be at risk of rapid deterioration.

“Influenza can sometimes kill otherwise healthy people in the prime of their lives,” says Dr Tang.

“By using the High-risk Influenza Screen Test we’re eavesdropping on the immune system to pick up when the body first mounts a defence against a serious, life-threatening, infection.

The early warning means we have a greater chance to treat the patient’s infection before it overwhelms them and potentially kills them,” says Dr Tang.

The research, published today by Dr Tang and colleagues in the European Respiratory Journal, deciphered the genetic codes that immune cells release to warn the body of a serious infection, such as pneumonia, caused by the influenza virus.

Benjamin Tang

Dr Benjamin Tang

HIST will be particularly useful during pandemics when there is a delay in developing vaccines for strains of the influenza virus. “We can now test people during a pandemic, or outbreak of a new flu virus, to identify those who might be at greater risk of developing serious complications.

The test works with any flu infection as it looks at how the body reacts rather than the strain or type of virus.”

Dr Tang says HIST could also be used to track the effectiveness of new drugs in clinical trials by accurately plotting the patient’s immune response.

The patented High-risk Influenza Screen Test runs on equipment already available in most pathology laboratories. This is the first patent granted to Nepean Hospital.

Flu facts
  • The best defence against the flu is good hand hygiene, and being vaccinated against the most common known current strains1
  • 1 in 5 Australians will have influenza this year
  • Flu kills 1,500 to 3,500 Australians each year5 compare to 1,295 road deaths in 20167
  • 18,000 hospitalisations each year in Australia5
  • Over 310,000 GP visits each year in Australia2
  • Influenza costs the Australian health care system over $85m annually2
  • Worldwide influenza causes 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness every year3
  • Worldwide influenza kills 250,000 to 500,000 every year3
  • 20th Century had three influenza pandemics6:
  • 1918 Spanish flu
  • 1957-58 Asian flu
  • 1968-70 Hong Kong flu
  • 'Spanish Flu’ pandemic (1918 to 1919) killed 20 to 50 million people worldwide3
  • 21st Century so far one pandemic6:
  • 2009 H1N1 influenza virus also known as swine flu
  • Influenza virus can live for5:
  • an hour in the air in enclosed environments
  • over 8 hours on hard surfaces eg stainless steel and plastic
  • 5 minutes on your hands after transferring from another surface

1Colds and Influenza, Healthdirect

2Newall, A et al. Economic report into the cost of influenza to the Australian health system. March 2007

3Influenza fact sheet no 211, World health Organisation

4World Health Organisation

5Influenza Specialist Group

6Colds and Flu Statistics, Healthdirect

7Safety Statistics, Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development

Ends

16 June 2017

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