Influenza or “flu” is caused by the influenza virus, and infection with this virus can sometimes be fatal. Hundreds of thousands of people die each year from seasonal flu. A flu pandemic occurs when a new type of influenza virus is introduced to humans from animals and eventually spreads globally.

Curriculum links

Applications and implications of science 4a. about the use of contemporary scientific and technological developments and their benefits, drawbacks and risks

4b. to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions
4c. how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and about the role of the scientific community in validating these changes.

Organisms and health

In their study of science, the following should be covered:

5a. organisms are interdependent and adapted to their environments
5b. variation within species can lead to evolutionary changes and similarities and differences between species can be measured and classified
5e human health is affected by a range of environmental and inherited factors, by the use and misuse of drugs and by medical treatments.


Scottish Curriculum

Science - Curriculum for Excellence level 4 SCN 4-14c. Body systems and cells - Inheritance: I can use my understanding of how characteristics are inherited to solve simple genetic problems and relate this to my understanding of DNA, genes and chromosomes
SCN 4-20a. Topical Science: I have researched new developments in science and can explain how their current or future applications might impact on modern life.
SCN 4-20b. Having selected scientific themes of topical interest, I can critically analyse the issues, and use relevant information to develop an informed argument
Social Studies - Curriculum for Excellence level 4 SOC 4-16a. People in society, economy and business: I can contribute to a discussion on the extent to which people's needs should be met by the state or the individual
SOC 4-16b. Through discussion, I have identified aspects of a social issue to investigate and by gathering information I can assess its impact and the attitudes of the people affected
SOC 4-18a. I can evaluate the impact which decision making bodies have on the lives of people in Scotland or elsewhere
Biology National 4 & 5 Potentially relevant to modules: Multicellular organisms (health), Life on Earth (if adaptation is part of competition)
Science National 4 Potentially relevant to modules: Human health (threats to health)
Biology Higher Potentially relevant to modules: DNA and the Genome (gene expression)
Human Biology Higher Potentially relevant to modules: Immunology and Public health (immune system, control of infectious diseases, vaccination, public health policy)


Why is investigating pandemic flu important?

What is influenza?

Flu virusInfluenza or "flu" is caused by the influenza virus.  Someone with flu often has fever, muscle pain, sore throat and sometimes sickness and diarrhoea. Most people get better in 2-3 weeks but sometimes it can be more serious and the sick person can get other infections such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and can die.  Flu is spread from person to person (or between animals) by virus particles that are sprayed out when infected people sneeze or cough. These are then breathed in by other people. The virus can also be transferred from a surface that might have been contaminated by someone else (eg a door handle). The spread (or transmission) of flu can be reduced by using tissues, putting them in the bin and washing your hands before preparing food or touching your face.

As well as infecting humans, the virus can infect other animals including birds (avian flu) and pigs (swine flu).  The flu virus is able to mix with other viruses in the animals it infects and change its characteristics to form a new strain. Often, these changes will make the virus less dangerous (virulent) to humans. Occasionally a more virulent virus emerges which is different to the other strains of flu that are circulating in the population. Because it is different to existing strains, few people have immunity to it so it can easily infect large numbers of people and cause high levels of illness and death. A pandemic occurs when a new type of influenza virus is introduced to humans from animals and eventually spreads globally. For more information about the spread of viruses from animals to humans see the resource: Emerging infections: viruses that come in from the wild

Why is studying flu important?

There have been four major flu pandemics in the last century in 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009. The 1918 pandemic was the most serious and occurred at the end of World War 1. Between 50 and 100 million people died - more than were killed in the war.

All four pandemics were caused by different types of influenza viruses that had been introduced to humans from animals. This is why scientists are on the lookout for any new flu viruses that might be able to infect humans and cause high levels of illness or death. Even if the virus is not particularly lethal, high numbers of people off sick from work or school can have serious effects on the economy.

Whilst pandemics are an important area of research, seasonal flu is equally so. Across the world, hundreds of millions of people are infected with flu each year, and hundreds of thousands die. The influenza vaccine is useful, but it has to be changed and updated almost every year to keep pace with the evolution of the flu virus. Understanding how and when the virus is likely to change is important for maintaining good levels of public health.