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Your genes may be why you do — or don’t — get the flu

The flu season is rapidly approaching.

Minimize your risk of getting the flu this season by getting a flu shot.
REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang
Minimize your risk of getting the flu this season by getting a flu shot.

The flu season is rapidly approaching. Any week now, you may find yourself in bed with the miserable telltale signs of influenza: fever, body aches, chills, headache and fatigue.

You may also find yourself wondering, Why me?  Why do I always seem to get the flu when my friends and work colleagues don’t?

If those thoughts have ever taken hold of your flu-feverish mind, you may or may not be comforted by a new British study published this week in the journal PLoS Genetics. It suggests that whether we succumb to the flu may be a matter of genetics.

In other words, some lucky people may be genetically predisposed to staving off the illness.

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Here’s a description of the study and its findings from Tina Hesman Saey of ScienceNews:

Most of what researchers know about influenza’s effect on people comes from studies of people who are already sick. But Alfred Hero and his colleagues wanted to know how some people seem to be able to avoid getting sick. The researchers infected 17 volunteers with a strain of seasonal flu called H3N2/Wisconsin.
Nine of the volunteers got sick. Some of the others reported feeling under the weather, but had no clinically discernible symptoms. The researchers drew blood before the flu inoculation and every eight hours for five days after the initial infection. The team then examined the activity of about 22,000 genes in each blood sample.
“The persistent patterns that came out of this were striking to say the least,” says Hero, a computer scientist and electrical engineer at the University of Michigan Medical School.
Gene activity patterns could predict up to 36 hours before symptoms peaked how sick people would get, the researchers found. Those who got sick activated immune chemicals that trigger inflammation and stress responses. “In asymptomatic people the immune response is just as active, but dramatically different in nature,” Hero says. People who stayed well not only repressed the stress response, but also activated anti-inflammation and antioxidant genes.
“This is really exciting data,” says Octavio Ramilo, the head of pediatric infectious diseases at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The study illustrates that gene activity analysis may help doctors determine which patients are most in danger of getting seriously ill.

Of course, this is just one small study.  A lot more research will need to be conducted before anybody will be using genes to predict flu risk. As Saey points out, “Researchers still need to determine whether the different patterns of responses depend upon the person’s genetic makeup, properties of the virus or other factors.”

In the meantime, however, you can take some well-proven steps to minimize your risk of getting the flu this season. First and foremost, say public health officials, get a flu shot. In addition, take all the other standard flu-prevention measures: wash your hands frequently with soap and water; keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth; and stay home when you become sick until you’ve been symptom-free for 24 hours.

For most of us, getting the flu is simply a miserable inconvenience. But for others, the flu is much, much more serious. Last flu season, almost 1,000 Minnesotans were hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza and 62 people died in the state as a result of complications related to the illness, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

No matter what your genetic predisposition, the flu is definitely nothing to sneeze at.