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Many of us suffer from a bad cold on once or twice a year. Not just the sniffles but one of those crippling colds which leaves you with a temperature for days on end unable to enjoy the time off work because every muscle in your body aches. Sometimes people attribute it to the notorious ‘flu’ but how can it be that some people just suffer mild cold-like symptoms whilst others become horrifically ill or even die?
The old tale is that some of us are just more resilient, whilst others wilt at the slightest hint of a headache. But researchers have recently found a link between genetics and the way in which people respond to the flu virus. This could help us to understand, for example, why during the swine flu pandemic in 2009 some people infected managed to recover unscathed yet otherwise healthy people became extremely unwell and even died from the disease.
The gene responsible for the development of flu symptoms is now known to be IFITM3. When present in high levels, it stops the virus from spreading to the lungs, whereas a mutated version of the gene makes people more likely to end up in hospital after becoming infected with the flu.
The gene has been called the ‘first line of defence against flu’ by Britain's Sanger Institute, where the study was developed, meaning that it immediately alerts the immune system to begin fighting the infection and makes it more likely for us to make a speedy recovery.
This first discovery will hopefully lead to funding for further research into the way flu in which affects different people in very different ways. Currently, people in the UK are only vaccinated against the flu if they are in ‘high risk’ groups. These include pregnant women, people over the age of 65 and people who already suffer from other serious illnesses. Those who are not considered high-risk would have to pay for the vaccine if they want to avoid being infected.
Unfortunately, the high-risk groups do not yet include genetic factors. This means that although we have the information to predict who is at risk, it cannot be enforced. Even if the NHS fronted the cost for everyone to be tested for the IFITM3 gene, it is unlikely that they would all be given the vaccine as a result, making the process somewhat redundant.
There is currently no way of knowing whether you have the gene which affects one in every 20 people and could make you vulnerable to complications from the flu, so the new discovery could lead to a record number of people choosing to get vaccinated privately, despite the fact that treating flu patients costs the NHS millions of pounds every year, money which it now seems could largely be saved by preventing complications in the first place.