I made the mistake of watching Contagion at the movies a couple weeks before having my flu jab. Never before have I been so acutely aware of the sniffles and stifled coughs of strangers sitting near me in the audience. Incredible, I thought, how one tiny little virus can cause such devastation.
While seasonal flu might not be as deadly as the fictional virus depicted in Contagion, the film is disturbingly accurate in terms of how easily a virus like the flu can spread, and its potential impact on already overwhelmed health services.
Seasonal flu affects millions of people every year. Although many of them do follow the advice to stay at home until it has run its course, I've always wondered how the NHS copes with the floods of patients who arrive in our local A&E wards with complications. I know from my work in London hospitals that the health services are already stretched to, if not well past, their limits.
How then do they plan for and deal with sudden swells of infectious patients? How do we know just how bad the next flu strain will be? And what would happen if we were to see an unexpectedly virulent strain of seasonal flu?
According to scientists John Edmunds, Ken Eames and Sebastian Funk, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, surveillance is the key.
Together they have created a powerful monitoring tool, Flusurvey (flusurvey.org.uk), which will allow researchers to track the spread of seasonal flu, to flag up severity and trends early in flu season, and to look at the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.
"Being able to detect a flu epidemic before hospitals and GPs are snowed under with patients is vital," says Professor Edmunds. "We set up the Flusurvey to allow the public to report their illness directly. Anyone can take part, just log on and do your bit to help us deal with the next epidemic."
In previous years, the voluntary online survey has attracted up to 5,000 participants. This year, the researchers hope that they can top this number.
Dr Eames says: "The more people who join the better. Being part of the Flusurvey just takes a couple of minutes each week. We're looking for thousands of volunteers to take up this opportunity to join in with an exciting scientific project to aid health research."
How to use Flusurvey
Using Flusurvey is quick and easy. Registration and the initial questionnaire about your risk factors will take you less than 2 minutes. You only have to complete this questionnaire the first time you use flusurvey - afterwards you just log in and report your symptoms.
The weekly symptom survey takes about 5 seconds to complete if you have no flu-like symptoms, and less than a minute to complete if you do have flu symptoms.
If, like me, you start developing psychosomatic flu symptoms while you're in the middle of completing the survey it may take a little longer.
Flusurvey interactive map
As if contributing to crucial research wasn't enough, the Flusurvey folks have tempted me back to the flusurvey once a week with this...
There is something disturbing but wholly fascinating about watching the spread of a virus on a Google Map and seeing counties boroughs switch from blue to red. We'll also be able to compare the spread of the infection in 10 different countries participating in this year's flusurvey - remember though that this isn't a competition! What we're hoping to see is lots of blue all around.
What if I don't have the flu, or have already had my jab?
It doesn't matter. The idea is that researchers look at how many 'typical' people have flu-like symptoms and when...but 'typical' is a tricky thing to measure in a society like ours. Some of the participants have flu right now (I know, I've seen the red spot on the map), while others may never catch the virus or develop symptoms at all.
Some of us take the tube or spend too much time in overcrowded children's play areas, while others live out in the countryside and have little exposure to other people's germs. Some will have long term illnesses, or autoimmune disorders, while others are fit and healthy.
Some, like myself, will have had the flu vaccine and hopefully will just tick "no symptoms" every week.
The idea is to look at a sample of the UK population, and predict the virus' spread through the population as a whole. The more people choose to complete the survey, the more accurate the predictions, and the better able we are to cope with a flu epidemic.
Please do your part - take a minute to complete the survey now: http://flusurvey.org.uk/
Have you had your flu jab? I would love to know why, or why not...