Commonly known as the flu, influenza is a common viral disease of the lower respiratory system caused by an orthomyxovirus. Influenza is pervasive worldwide and causes 3,000–50,000 deaths each year in the United States. The annual mortality rate can vary greatly depending on the virulence of the strain(s) responsible for seasonal epidemics.
Influenza infections are most typically characterized by fever, chills, and body aches. This is followed by symptoms similar to the common cold that may last a week or more. Tha table above compares the signs and symptoms of influenza and the common cold.
In general, influenza is self-limiting. However, serious cases can lead to pneumonia and other complications that can be fatal. Such cases are more common in the very young and the elderly; however, certain strains of influenza virus (like the 1918–1919 variant discussed later in this chapter) are more lethal to young adults than to the very young or old. Strains that affect young adults are believed to involve a cytokine storm—a positive feedback loop that forms between cytokine production and leukocytes. This cytokine storm produces an acute inflammatory response that leads to rapid fluid accumulation in the lungs, culminating in pulmonary failure. In such cases, the ability to mount a vigorous immune response is actually detrimental to the patient. The very young and very old are less susceptible to this effect because their immune systems are less robust.
A complication of influenza that occurs primarily in children and teenagers is Reye syndrome. This sequela causes swelling in the liver and brain, and may progress to neurological damage, coma, or death. Reye syndrome may follow other viral infections, like chickenpox, and has been associated with the use of aspirin. For this reason, the CDC and other agencies recommend that aspirin and products containing aspirin never be used to treat viral illnesses in children younger than age 19 years.
The influenza virus is primarily transmitted by direct contact and inhalation of aerosols. The RNA genome of this virus exists as seven or eight segments, each coated with ribonucleoprotein and encoding one or two specific viral proteins. The influenza virus is surrounded by a lipid membrane envelope, and two of the main antigens of the influenza virus are the spike proteins hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). These spike proteins play important roles in the viral infectious cycle.
Following inhalation, the influenza virus uses the hemagglutinin protein to bind to sialic acid receptors on host respiratory epithelial cells. This facilitates endocytosis of the viral particle. Once inside the host cell, the negative strand viral RNA is replicated by the viral RNA polymerase to form mRNA, which is translated by the host to produce viral proteins. Additional viral RNA molecules are transcribed to produce viral genomic RNA, which assemble with viral proteins to form mature virions. Release of the virions from the host cell is facilitated by viral neuraminidase, which cleaves sialic-acid receptors to allow progeny viruses to make a clean exit when budding from an infected cell.
There are three genetically related influenza viruses, called A, B, and C. The influenza A viruses have different subtypes based on the structure of their hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins. There are currently 18 known subtypes of hemagglutinin and 11 known subtypes of neuraminidase. Influenza viruses are serologically characterized by the type of H and N proteins that they possess. Of the nearly 200 different combinations of H and N, only a few, such as the H1N1 strain, are associated with human disease. The influenza viruses A, B, and C make up three of the five major groups of orthomyxoviruses. The most virulent group is the influenza A viruses, which cause seasonal pandemics of influenza each year. Influenza A virus can infect a variety of animals, including pigs, horses, pigs, and even whales and dolphins. Influenza B virus is less virulent and is sometimes associated with epidemic outbreaks. Influenza C virus generally produces the mildest disease symptoms and is rarely connected with epidemics. Neither influenza B virus nor influenza C virus has significant animal reservoirs.
Influenza virus infections elicit a strong immune response, particularly to the hemagglutinin protein, which would protect the individual if they encountered the same virus. Unfortunately, the antigenic properties of the virus change relatively rapidly, so new strains are evolving that immune systems previously challenged by influenza virus cannot recognize. When an influenza virus gains a new hemagglutinin or neuraminidase type, it is able to evade the host’s immune response and be successfully transmitted, often leading to an epidemic.
There are two mechanisms by which these evolutionary changes may occur. The mechanisms of antigen drift and antigenic shift for influenza virus. Of these two genetic processes, it is viruses produced by antigenic shift that have the potential to be extremely virulent because individuals previously infected by other strains are unlikely to produce any protective immune response against these novel variants.
The most lethal influenza pandemic in recorded history occurred from 1918 through 1919. Near the end of World War I, an antigenic shift involving the recombination of avian and human viruses is thought to have produced a new H1N1 virus. This strain rapidly spread worldwide and is commonly claimed to have killed as many as 40 million to 50 million people—more than double the number killed in the war. Although referred to as the Spanish flu, this disease is thought to have originated in the United States. Regardless of its source, the conditions of World War I greatly contributed to the spread of this disease. Crowding, poor sanitation, and rapid mobilization of large numbers of personnel and animals facilitated the dissemination of the new virus once it appeared.
Several of the most important influenza pandemics of modern times have been associated with antigenic shifts. A few of these are summarized in the table below.
Laboratory diagnosis of influenza is typically performed using a variety of RIDTs. These tests are inoculated by point-of-care personnel and give results within 15–20 minutes. Unfortunately, these tests have variable sensitivity and commonly yield false-negative results. Other tests include hemagglutination of erythrocytes (due to hemagglutinin action) or complement fixation. Patient serum antibodies against influenza viruses can also be detected in blood samples. Because influenza is self-limiting disease, diagnosis through these more time-consuming and expensive methods is not typically used.
Three drugs that inhibit influenza neuraminidase activity are available: inhaled zanamivir, oral oseltamivir, and intravenous peramivir. If taken at the onset of symptoms, these drugs can shorten the course of the disease. These drugs are thought to impair the ability of the virus to efficiently exit infected host cells. A more effective means of controlling influenza outbreaks, though, is vaccination. Every year, new influenza vaccines are developed to be effective against the strains expected to be predominant. This is determined in February by a review of the dominant strains around the world from a network of reporting sites; their reports are used to generate a recommendation for the vaccine combination for the following winter in the northern hemisphere. In September, a similar recommendation is made for the winter in the southern hemisphere.23 These recommendations are used by vaccine manufacturers to formulate each year’s vaccine. In most cases, three or four viruses are selected—the two most prevalent influenza A strains and one or two influenza B strains. The chosen strains are typically cultivated in eggs and used to produce either an inactivated or a live attenuated vaccine (e.g., FluMist). For individuals 18 years or older with an allergy to egg products, a recombinant egg-free trivalent vaccine is available. Most of the influenza vaccines over the past decade have had an effectiveness of about 50%.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology