• Lancaster University

Influenza: How the Flu Spreads and Evolves

Get an introduction to the biology, epidemiology and evolution of the influenza virus in this free online course.

19,016 enrolled on this course

Influenza: How the Flu Spreads and Evolves - course image
  • Duration

    2 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

Understand influenza past to present.

Since 1918, our understanding of the influenza virus has come a long way. We can now trace how the pandemics of the last hundred years originated and model the evolution of the virus from year to year, aiding vaccine design.

On this course you will explore everything from the history of influenza to modern laboratory diagnostics and vaccination. You will go inside the laboratory as well as contributing your own experiences of flu. Together we can build a greater understanding of flu, and work to help prevent its spread.

Please note this course runs without facilitation.

Download video: standard or HD

Skip to 0 minutes and 11 seconds The first World War killed around 16 million people across the globe. Nearly half of them civilians. But just as that was drawing to a close, an even greater catastrophe occurred. An extremely virulent form of influenza began to spread around the world. Within two years, at least 40 million people had died of this disease, and possibly as many as 100 million. That’s over five times as many as had been killed as a result of the war. My name is Derek Gatherer, and I’m going to be your guide through the material we will be covering in this course all about influenza. Or as most of us call it, the flu.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds For those of us who live in the colder parts of the world, one of the ways we notice that winter is approaching is that people start sneezing. Many people will be convinced that they’ve caught the flu, but at least in the early part of the winter, that won’t be the case. The flu doesn’t usually arrive in the colder parts of the northern hemisphere until about Christmas time or January. For those who live in the southern hemisphere, you will see the flu arriving around July. This is what we call seasonal influenza. In recent decades, we’ve had the option of vaccination against seasonal flu. And flu vaccination will be one of the topics we’ll look at in more detail.

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds From time to time, a pandemic flu strain will appear. That’s an outbreak that has global coverage. Like the flu outbreak of 1918, but perhaps less severe. Where pandemics come from, and how they change and seasonal flus, in other words, how the flu virus evolves, will be one of our main topics in the course. As well as studying the public health aspects of influenza, we will be looking in some detail of the virus itself. its structure, its life cycle, and many other aspects of its basic biology. And by learning about flu viruses, you will acquire a body of knowledge that will also help your general understanding of other viral diseases. Things like AIDS, Ebola, measles, rabies, and polio.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 seconds These viruses together kill several million people across the world every year. So viruses are important to all of us, and they’re likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Whether you’re a health professional, a student of biology, or an interested member of the public, this course I hope will contain something of interest to you. So I look forward to joining you on this Lancaster University course for influenza.


  • Week 1

    Introduction - history, pandemics, basic virology and bird flu

    • Activity 1 - Introduction

      Influenza through the ages to 1918.

    • Activity 2 - Pandemics

      From 1918 to the present day

    • Activity 3 - Virology

      More about the basic molecular biology of the virus

    • Activity 4 - Bird Flu

      Avian influenza

    • Activity 5 - The Life Cycle of Influenza Virus

      You've got it! What happens to you now?

    • Activity 6 - Test Your Knowledge

      What have you learned in the first week?

    • Comment Discovery Tool

      We have visualised all the comments in the course into an interactive wordcloud, to help you discover comments you may have missed

    • Summing Up

      What have we done so far?

  • Week 2

    Epidemiology, vaccination, treatment and other flu-like viruses

    • Activity 1 - Epidemiology

      Aerosols and fomites

    • Activity 2 - Laboratory Techniques

      Diagnostics, sampling and hygiene

    • Activity 3 - Antivirals

      Drugs that target influenza and its symptoms

    • Activity 4 - Flu B and C

      Flu's irritating relations

    • Activity 5 - Test your knowledge

      What have you learned on this course?

    • Activity 6 - Summing up

      Looking back and looking forward

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Describe the fundamental virology of Influenza, including its life cycle and molecular structure.
  • Explain how influenza evolves and spreads.
  • Classify previous influenza pandemics by subtype.
  • Describe the difference between a seasonal flu and a pandemic flu.
  • Describe how various tools and techniques can be used for diagnostic purposes.
  • Contribute in an informed way to current debates around influenza vaccination and prevention.

Who is the course for?

The course is suitable for anyone with a general interest in health and disease - from school students to health professionals.

Derek and his team won’t be available to answer questions or respond to your comments during this course. However, we strongly encourage you to interact and support each other by posting your thoughts and comments and sharing your knowledge with other participants.

We hope that you will enjoy this course.

Who will you learn with?

Lecturer in the Division of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medicine, Lancaster University, UK.
Twitter: @viroscape

Who developed the course?

Lancaster University

Lancaster University is a collegiate university, with a global reputation as a centre for research, scholarship and teaching with an emphasis on employability.

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

Want to know more about learning on FutureLearn? Using FutureLearn

Learner reviews

Learner reviews cannot be loaded due to your cookie settings. Please and refresh the page to view this content.

Do you know someone who'd love this course? Tell them about it...

You can use the hashtag #FLflu to talk about this course on social media.