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Free online course

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.


  • Access to the course for its duration + 14 days, starting from when you join
  • No access to course tests
  • No certificate


  • Unlimited access to the course for as long as it exists on FutureLearn
  • Access to course tests
  • A Certificate of Achievement when you complete the course

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Influenza: How the Flu Spreads and Evolves

See how flu's seasonal and pandemic forms spread and evolve

Influenza strikes in two forms. Seasonal influenza returns each winter, killing up to half a million people in bad years. Pandemic influenza strikes rarely (just a few times in the last century) yet it can kill millions. This online course looks at both forms, covering the history of influenza up to modern laboratory diagnostics and vaccination. You’ll explore the annual cycle that brings seasonal flu each winter, and how bird and swine flus contribute to new pandemic strains.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 11 secondsThe 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 secondsFrom 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.

What topics will you cover?

  • Pandemics and seasonal flu
  • The basic biology of flu viruses
  • Bird flu and how new flu subtypes arise
  • How flu spreads and how we can help prevent it
  • The body’s response to flu
  • Immunisation – the annual flu jab
  • Treatment of flu
  • Diagnosis of flu

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

What will you achieve?

  • 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?

Derek Gatherer

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

Who developed the course?

Ranked in the global top 1%, Lancaster University is a collegiate university, with a global reputation as a centre for research, scholarship and teaching with an emphasis on employability.

Buy a personalised, digital and printed certificate and transcript

You can buy a Certificate of Achievement for this course — a personalised certificate and transcript in both digital and printed formats, to prove what you’ve learnt. A Statement of Participation is also available for this course.

Certificate of Achievement + transcript £49.00

Statement of Participation £24.00

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Charges to your account will be made in GBP. Prices in local currency are provided as a convenience and are only an estimate based on current exchange rates.