The disease that changed history: How a Queensland researcher sees the future of influenza

Australia’s obesity epidemic has created a newly vulnerable population to potentially deadly influenza, according to new research being undertaken by a Queensland virologist.

Following Australia’s worst influenza season on record, University of Queensland researcher Kirsty Short has won a $25,000 Women in Science fellowship to investigate the links between obesity and the long-term effects of flu.

She said evidence showed that overweight or obese people – which accounts for more than than 60 per cent of Australia’s population – were increasingly identified as a vulnerable population, alongside the more traditionally vulnerable groups of the elderly and very young.

Dr Short was recently awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellowship and will use the grant to investigate the long-term effects of the flu on the immune systems of people who are or were obese and overweight.

One particular aspect, she said, was the fact that people who have since lost weight are still more vulnerable to the flu, with her future research aiming to identify why that happens and hopefully develop protections.

A scientist with a degree in arts and history, Dr Short said she was fascinated by influenza for its wide-ranging impacts.

“It’s a disease that has really changed human history,” she said.

“We look at past pandemics, we look at the influence that the 1918 pandemic had, especially coming at the end of the war – that pandemic killed more people than the war itself.

“It sort of puts things in perspective, so what fascinates me about influenza is its ability to shape history, but also the fact that its ability to cause pandemics in particular is inextricably linked with the way in which we live.

“We’re now encroaching on spaces and living in ways that historically we didn’t live, so we’re now being exposed to and being in close proximity to animals, in particular pigs and birds and poultry.”

In all of human history only one viral disease – smallpox – has been successfully exterminated but the flu is nearly impossible to stop in its tracks because it can cross between human and animal populations.

Dr Short said prior to the first pandemic of the 21st century – the 2009 swine flu pandemic – it wasn’t recognised that obesity and overweight people were more at risk of contracting severe flu and winding up in intensive care at hospital or dying of the disease.

“Although that pandemic was pretty mild, it only killed about 500,000 people worldwide, it really highlighted that certain patients were susceptible,” she said.

“It was the first pandemic that happened in the time that a large percentage of the world’s population was overweight, so it was the first time we started appreciating hey, actually obesity is a really big susceptibility factor for severe disease.”

Dr Short said new research had already established that obese and overweight people were more likely to spread the disease, and were less likely to respond well to the flu vaccine.

“So the one thing we have to try and protect you, it doesn’t work very well,” she said.

“What we’re trying to do is get this in-depth understanding of what obesity does to your immune system, and how it can alter your immune system and in particular its response to viral infection.”

Her research will also investigate the long-lasting effects of obesity on the immune system, as indications remain that even if an obese person loses weight, they remain highly vulnerable to influenza.

With the new fellowship, Dr Short said she was excited to investigate further how a person’s “metabolic history” could shape their future.

Dr Short said her research could have impacts internationally, as a perception that obesity is a problem of the Western world was disproven by rising obesity rates in China and across the Middle East.

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellowship is awarded to early-career female scientists, a focus on gender equity that Dr Short said was very welcome.

“My mum is a scientist, and she always tells me that in her day when she was doing a PhD, she used to have to lie about doing a PhD because if she ever met a guy at a party and said ‘Oh, I’m doing a PhD’, she’d be criticised for taking a man’s place,” Dr Short said.

“She always used to say ‘I work at the university’ and make it really ambiguous.

“To see it go from that to my generation where there’s now a recognition that gender diversity and general diversity in science is really important … that’s really exciting.”



By |2018-11-08T08:38:59+00:00November 8th, 2018|

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