(NaturalNews) Severe illness and even death are more likely to occur if one develops another respiratory infection after catching the flu; however, new research shows that the order in which one contracts these diseases may have a life-changing effect on the patient.
The latest research involving influenza proves yet again that nature is one of our biggest allies when it comes to fighting infectious disease, this time in ways you probably wouldn't have suspected.
A team of scientists based at the Wistar Institute, a international hub for biomedical research specializing in cancer analysis and vaccine development, discovered that contracting a respiratory infection prior to the flu may actually help protect you against a bad case of the infection.
A press release by the Wistar Institute described how the protein pneumolysin, a virulence factor of the gram-positive bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia, might protect macrophages -- immune cells that initiate defenses -- in the alveoli of the lungs, thus providing protection and offering immunity from inflammation, in turn preventing pneumonia.
The findings, which will appear in the August issue of the journal Virology, used mice to model influenza infections and found that the animals that were "colonized by Streptococcus pneumonia ten days prior to exposure to influenza were significantly less likely to develop severe disease or pneumonia than mice who were not colonized by the bacteria."
However, the mice that were exposed to the flu before a secondary pneumococcal infection exhibited worsened symptoms, becoming more ill than the mice that contracted the diseases in the reverse order.
Despite attempts made by government health officials to fraudulently market the flu vaccine as the answer to avoiding contraction of the infection, scientists warn that influenza still has the power to take lives.
"Influenza remains a major killer, and there is a preponderance of evidence, both scientific and historical, to show how secondary bacterial infections can be fatal," said Jan Erikson, Ph.D., professor at the Wistar Institute. "However, pneumococci often colonize the respiratory tract asymptomatically, particularly in children, leading us to consider how pre-colonization would impact a subsequent influenza infection."
During the investigation, researchers learned that the mice first exposed to pneumococci showed signs of decreased inflammation in the lungs following influenza infection.
The mice were still able to contract the virus, but the response to the infection changed in a way that prevented them from distributing signs of illness.
Attempting to learn how this was possible, researchers used mutant strains of pneumococcus that lacked certain proteins in order to single out which bacterial protein was required to generate the protective effects of pneumococcus. Through trial and error, Erikson and her colleagues learned that pneumolysin was the protein necessary to provide protection and prevent inflammation.
Scientists still don't understand exactly how pneumolysin lessens the severity of the disease but were able to show definitively how the cells initiate defense, thus reducing inflammation and recruiting immune cells to the lungs.
"Less inflammation would mean less chances of developing pneumonia, which is a major source of flu deaths," Erikson was paraphrased as saying in the press release, adding that her results suggested that the presence of specific respiratory tract microbes could be a contributing factor to impacting the body's response to the infection.
"It remains to be seen what lessons we can learn from pneumococcus in lessening flu infections," Erikson said, "but I would be interested in seeing if we could get the benefit of pneumococcal colonization without the associated risks."
The research was funded by grants provided by the National Institute of Health to Erikson, in addition to a BD Biosciences Immunology Research grant given to the study's first author, Amaya I. Wolf, Ph.D.