BACKGROUND: New tests to rapidly detect the flu are allowing doctors to cut down on the number of hospital patients who receive antibiotics, helping soften the rapidly worsening threat of antibiotic resistance. Doctors are less likely to prescribe antibiotics, which work on bacteria but not viruses, if there is documented evidence that a patient has the flu -- which is caused by a virus -- and not a bacterial infection. The research was done by infection control experts at Rochester General Hospital in New York.
ABOUT THE STUDY: The Rochester scientists analyzed the records of 166 patients who had the flu when they were hospitalized. Eighty-six of the patients tested positive with the rapid test, which gives an answer within minutes, while the other 80 either tested negative or did not have the test done. When they checked the later treatment, they found that 86% of patients whose flu was confirmed early on were treated with antibiotics, compared to 99% of patients whose flu was not identified immediately. The overuse of antibiotics makes patients and the community more vulnerable to microbes resistant to most treatments. Yet doctors often prescribe antibiotics in case patients also have a bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, in addition to the flu.
WHAT IS THE FLU: The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which targets the respiratory tract by binding to the surface of cells. Then the virus releases its genetic information into the cell's nucleus to replicate itself. When the cell dies, those copies are released into the body, infecting other cells. Flu symptoms are unpleasant, but not life-threatening by themselves. However, the flu weakens the immune system, making the body vulnerable to more serious infections, such as pneumonia. Because the flu is caused by a virus -- as opposed to bacteria -- antibiotics are not an effective treatment. Both the flu and the common cold are best treated by bed rest, consuming lots of fluids, and taking over-the-counter medication to ease symptoms until the virus runs its course.
ORIGINAL ANTIGENIC SIN: Original antigenic sin occurs when the antibodies produced by the body's immune system to fight exposure to the flu virus become part of the body's "memory" so that it can fight off future exposure the same flu strain. The problem is that those same antibodies end up suppressing the creation of new antibodies when the body is exposed to a new strain of the flu, making last year's flu vaccine ineffective against the newer strain. The phenomenon has also been observed in dengue fever and HIV, among other viruses.