Of late, India is seeing increased cases of influenza which includes symptoms such as cough, cold, fever, and body ache. According to the experts, this year the symptoms are prolonged and are contributing to higher hospitalization rates, than before. A low rate of vaccination and increased pollution are the possible reasons behind the trend, experts said.
"Although it is common to have such symptoms during this time of the year, when we are transitioning from one season to another, but we are seeing increased instances and prolonged symptoms this year. We can attribute this to Influenza virus H3N2," said Dr Meet Ghonia of the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases, New Delhi.
What is H3N2 and what are its symptoms?
Speaking to BOOM, Dr Karan Juneja, Chairman of the Indian Medical Association Junior Doctors Network, Haryana, said, "H3N2 is a subtype of the influenza virus A. This virus is prone to mutations and has mutated from the H1N1 strain which causes swine flu."
Explaining further on the mutations, Ghonia said, "Mutations occur when a virus finds a conducive environment for it. Influenza viruses are highly susceptible to antigenic shift, hence mutations. Other virus like HIV or hepatitis do not undergo such shifts." This, he said, implies that once we take a vaccine for hepatitis we are immune to it for a lifetime, but this is not the case with the influenza virus.
The experts said that the symptoms of the infection include cough, cold, fever, body pain and dizziness. According to Juneja, the H3N2 virus primarily causes respiratory stress as it causes upper respiratory tract infection.
Why are the symptoms so prolonged this time?
According to Ghonia, the increasing pollution is one of the primary causes of the symptoms being prolonged. " The cases are rising more in polluted cities like Delhi NCR. We will not find this rise in cases in cleaner cities or in villages."
Apart from pollution, the low rate of vaccination against influenza is also contributing to this. "The influenza virus undergoes mutations every six months or a year. Hence, yearly vaccination against the infection is important, especially for those who are immuno-compromised like diabetic patients and people who have undergone organ transplantations." A person is said to be immuno-compromised when their immune system's defenses are low, affecting their ability to fight off infections and diseases. It could either be due to a medical condition or from taking immunosuppressive medications or treatments.
"These vaccinations are not available free of cost or at a subsidised rate at any government hospital. We get them only at a private hospital. This could be a possible factor that results in the low rate of influenza vaccination," Ghonia added.
Juneja cited patients not consulting doctors and self-medication as a reason for prolonged symptoms. "Post covid, we have seen a trend that patients have become highly anxious of cough and fever. They resort to taking antibiotics even before consulting any expert, and also move over to complex antibiotics if they are not cured fast." This, leads to immunisation against a bacteria which hasn't even infected them yet. And when a bacterial infection does happen, a complex and stronger antibiotic is required to get rid of it as the earlier immunity is redundant.
Both doctors recommended symptomatic treatment for influenza, which is a viral infection, instead of antibiotics which are exclusively meant for bacterial infections. Symptomatic treatment refers to curing the symptoms without addressing the basic cause of the disease.
What precautions should be taken?
According to Juneja, using masks and staying away from crowded places serve as good precautionary measures. "Since we have a festive season coming up, it is good that we take precautions as the H3N2 virus transmits fast", he said.
Ghonia also reiterated the use of masks to curtail infections. "Apart from this, proper sanitisation and timely consultation with a doctor should be followed. We must take special care of the immuno-compromised patients as they are at high risk," he added.