Last updated 06:50, September 8 2017
A fast-mutating strain of the flu is defying medical experts’ efforts to stop it and has already killed at least 73 people in Australia this year.
Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory figures showed that the number of notified laboratory-confirmed flu cases in the state of Victoria for the year to July 2 was more than 90 per cent higher than those for the same period last year.
A young dad who died on Father’s Day was the latest victim of the country’s most widespread flu epidemic in 15 years.
Ben Ihlow’s death came as an eighth person died after a flu outbreak at an aged-care facility in Victoria with 14 more facilities reporting outbreaks at the weekend.
The family of the 30-year-old father of one said he was an otherwise healthy and devoted dad when he was struck down last week.
A 14-year-old Queensland teenager is also fighting for her life after reportedly contracting a severe case of the flu.
Influenza A (H3N2) is the flu subtype that is running rampant throughout the country, especially in nursing homes.
Despite extensive study, scientists have been at a loss to forecast the viruses’ evolution in any detail for decades.
Australian Medial Association vice-president Dr Tony Bartone said influenza viruses rapidly evolved, making it hard to develop protective vaccines against them.
Many viruses, including flu, are shape-shifters, constantly changing their proteins; occasionally, they undergo dramatic changes that evade the body’s defences and can cause local or global outbreaks.
Dr Bartone said when this had occurred throughout history, it had killed millions of people during each pandemic.
“Every now and then a major change occurs in the virus," Dr Bartone said.
“We’re punctuated regularly with seasonal variations of influenza, but the virus is very clever. It has evolved an ability to change its covering and mutate fractionally to get past defences allowing the virus to continue to spread."
However, Dr Bartone said Australians weren’t defenceless against the epidemic.
“This is a wake-up call to ourselves to be well-immunised people," he said.
“Each year an estimated 3500 people die of the flu across the nation, but all the research shows us that being immunised can greatly reduce the risk of contracting the virus to begin with."
The vaccination rate in Australia stands at 20 per cent.
Dr Bartone said while medications such as Tamiflu were registered to treat influenza, they needed to be used during the flu’s early stages to work.
He said cases of patients dying from complications due to influenza, including otherwise young and health people, were not unheard of.
“Influenza can easily spread, however, it’s not the virus, but the secondary complications that follow which result in death," he said.
“Often, but not always, complications of the virus occur in someone with other medical conditions, and of course, they [complications] are more common in the very young or elderly population, but even people outside these groups are at risk.
“It’s a very virulent organism which attacks the body. If it creates significant infection, even under the best care, the possibility for serious complications is still there."
Dr Bartone said symptoms of influenza often lasted about five to eight days and include a sore throat, body aches, headache, high fever, chills, cough (usually dry), chest heaviness and fatigue.
However, he urged anyone who was having difficultly controlling a fever over a prolonged period of time or in unbearable pain to seek medical help.
He said other measures people could take to protect themselves include washing hands thoroughly and regularly, using tissues and keeping surfaces clean.