Straight Talk on Influenza. Expert explanations in layman’s terms

Influenza is in the headlines again; this time because a new avian virus – the H7N9 – has infected several dozen people, with 23 confirmed deaths. Where do new influenza viruses come from? How are they different from the influenza viruses that circulate every year? Why is vaccination so important? To help answer the many questions people have about this multi-faceted virus, the American Academy of Microbiology has issued a new report entitled FAQ: Influenza.

“Influenza’s staying power as a major public health threat arises directly from its biology. It spreads before you know you’re infected, it mutates rapidly, and infections can range in severity from nuisance to lethal. It is one of the only diseases that can shut down public services because it races through communities so quickly”, says Jeffery Taubenberger of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, chair of the steering committee for the colloquium upon which the report was based.

The Academy convened twelve of the world’s leading experts on influenza in October, 2012 to consider and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about influenza. The resultant report provides non-technical, science-based answers to questions that people may have about the virus.

Some of the questions the report considers include:

- Why does influenza come back year after year?
- Should I worry about bird flu?
- Why is getting the flu shot every year so important?
- Can I get the flu from a flu vaccination?

FAQ: Influenza is the latest offering in a series of reports designed to provide a rapid response to emerging issues or to highlight the role of microbes in daily life. Previous FAQ reports have covered topics like the role of microorganisms in cleaning up oil spills and the central role of yeast in the production of beer.

“The Academy FAQ reports explain complex microbiological problems in a timely, balanced format that is easily understandable by the public, the media and policy makers,” says Stanley Maloy of San Diego State University.

A PDF of FAQ: Influenza can be found online at