Issue 9 | October 2009

Influenza viruses attaching to the cells of the upper respiratory tract.

Influenza special issue

***Articles reviewed and updated in January 2015***

This special issue, first published at the height of the H1N1 swine flu epidemic, looks at the nature of influenza today, drugs and vaccines that can fight it, how it compares to previous strains, and what international and national bodies are doing about it. Half the length of a regular ‘Big Picture’, it is packed full of interesting information and topical features.

Browse through our articles and check out our activities and lesson ideas. This issue was first published in 2009; in 2014 all of the individual resources were reviewed and updated for accuracy and currency. Please do note, however, that the PDF of the original 2009 issue has not been updated.

Flu in focus

A flu primer

Influenza is a potentially serious respiratory disease caused by a family of viruses

The virus unmasked

The influenza A virus is deceptively simple – at its core are eight short single strands of RNA, the coding material for up to 14 proteins

Out of control?

Influenza epidemics are almost impossible to contain; the priority quickly becomes minimising their impact

Drugs for influenza

Influenza can be tackled with antiviral drugs, though they have their limitations

Vaccines for influenza

Even if you haven’t had the flu this year, you’ve probably still seen the headlines – soaring hospital admissions across the UK, and three times as many flu deaths this winter compared to last. Partly, this is because the flu vaccine has offered less protection than usual. But why is it that flu vaccines vary in effectiveness? Read on to find out.

Pandemic influenza phases

Through its global monitoring, the World Health Organization can track emerging outbreaks and has the authority to declare the existence of a pandemic

Flu pandemics: five key questions

What you need to know

Past pandemics

1918 flu virus reborn

The 1918 Spanish flu virus has been reconstructed – and is helping to explain why flu can be so deadly

Flu through history

Pandemics have occurred periodically over the past 150 years

The 1976 swine flu outbreak

The peculiar pandemic that never was

Flu (seasonal, swine, avian and Spanish) and SARS compared

Do you notice any marked similarities or differences?

It’s good to talk

The 2009 swine flu pandemic was characterised by open communication – unlike previous pandemics

The origins of influenza viruses

Influenza virus genomes are a patchwork quilt of genes from different sources

The postwar killer

Spanish flu ravaged a continent already devastated by World War I

Avian flu: beyond H5N1

Will H5N1 avian flu seed the next human pandemic? Or could another form of bird flu turn out to be the one that goes global?

Ebola and influenza compared

The 2014 Ebola outbreak has been the subject of intense global scrutiny. How does it compare with influenza?

Further inside influenza

Virus genomes: shift and drift

The influenza genome is in constant flux

The way in: how influenza viruses infect cells

Why are some influenza viruses transmitted so easily between people while others are still restricted mainly to birds?

How the flu virus affects the body

What happens when the influenza virus invades?

Applying science to flu pandemics

Are we better prepared for flu pandemics than we were in the past?

The merits of ferrets

Many insights into flu transmission have come from research on an unusual model organism – the ferret

The dynamics of outbreaks and pandemics

Seasonal cycles, natural selection and the success of control efforts all play a role

Ethical questions

Loss of liberty

Do human rights go out of the window when a pandemic strikes?

The aftermath of the swine flu pandemic

Did the world, and the UK, overreact to the 2009 swine flu pandemic?

Flu vaccine and young people

Older people have traditionally been the target of flu vaccination campaigns, but it may be wise to vaccinate young people too

Who gets the medicine?

If there is not enough medicine to go round, who should be first in line – and who should decide?

A matter of preparedness

Are we ready for the next pandemic?

Activities and lesson ideas

Sneeze game

Find out how quickly viruses can spread through populations in this free online game.

Quiz: Flu and you

How well do you understand the flu? Test your knowledge with our quick 10-question quiz

Drugs for influenza

Influenza can be tackled with antiviral drugs, though they have their limitations

Further resources and activities on influenza

The Wellcome Trust has funded other organisations to produce activities and resources that will engage and educate young people on the topic of influenza

Fast Facts

Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.

Browse through all of our Fast Facts indexed by topic