A new and particularly severe strain of the common influenza A – officially H3N2, but dubbed as “Australian flu” – is said to have added to the significant pressure faced by NHS hospitals this winter. With one in four flu admissions attributed to the “Aussie flu”, Public Health England say that hospitalisation rates were 2.5 times higher than the same time last year.

A bout of flu tends to only last around a week for most people but can have a potentially fatal consequence for the elderly as well as patients with pre-existing health conditions. If the illness appears to persist for weeks or even months, there is also the possibility that another, but more rarer condition may be the real cause – the fatal and incurable mesothelioma cancer. The almost identical symptoms of a Stage 1 pleural mesothelioma to the common flu have often led to a failure to recognise the first signs of the deadly disease until it has reached a late Stage 3 or 4.

Elderly victims, in particular, can all too easily be confused by early symptoms. More worryingly still, it is not unknown for a doctor to also mistakenly diagnose influenza or another respiratory ailment, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, often associated with old age. If there has been a long history of cigarette smoking, the discovery of a build-up of liquid in the lung linings – known as a pleural effusion – may also not be recognised as an early symptom of pleural mesothelioma.

Slow, gradual build-up

It’s a well-known problem that a period of up to 50 years or more – but usually around 30 to 40 years – may elapse from an initial exposure to asbestos until the first appearance of asbestosis symptoms. For early generations of British workers – until at least the mid-1980s when the first ban was introduced – their lack of asbestos awareness or any protection or information supplied by their employers meant that many simply did not know of the potential long term health risks of working with or near asbestos containing materials.

It was therefore, not surprising that a victim in their 70s or 80s would simply fail to recognise the early symptoms of mesothelioma when they first appeared decades later. Identifying the early symptoms of asbestosis disease is not easy. Invariably, the onset is hardly noticeable and is followed by a slow, gradual build-up in the number and severity of symptoms. The earliest stage is so mild it’s often ‘put down’ to feeling ‘unwell’ or being vaguely ‘rundown’ with constant tiredness or feeling drained, perhaps due to an unspecified common or seasonal illness. Others suspect their poor fitness as a result of a lack of regular exercise and having ‘put on a few pounds’.

Common and almost identical symptoms

The onset of flu is almost always heralded by a sore throat and a headache, while an early sign of mesothelioma is an increasing shortness of breath, even when resting. However, it’s important to note the common and almost identical symptoms of flu with those of a Stage 1 and 2 mesothelioma:

  • Chest pain
  • Persistent dry coughing
  • Fluid build-up
  • Fever
  • Tiredness and Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite / Weight loss
  • Body aches

Exposed to asbestos without even knowing of its existence

Unfortunately, there can still be innocent victims of exposure today. Despite the steep decline on using asbestos from the late 1970s and a total ban by the end of the 20th century, the deadly insulation can still lay hidden in countless numbers of properties around the UK.

Tragically, men and women continued to be exposed to asbestos without even knowing of its existence within the fabric of the building where they worked. More than half of the 8,000 work-related cancer deaths recorded each year are caused by past exposures to asbestos, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The construction industry estimate that there still could be millions of buildings of all types containing asbestos, whether local council housing or a public amenity such as, a school, nursery, hospital, sports centre or library. The number of deaths from the incurable cancer is, for the third year running, over 2,500, which suggests that historical, non-occupational exposure – sometimes called “mystery” exposures is responsible for a high number of fatalities.

In November 2016, the HSE said that the number of deaths from mesothelioma had jumped by nearly a third. An estimated six people could now die of the fatal malignant cancer every day in England and Wales.