Last season's flu shot protected only 1 in 5 people

EDITORIAL: Have you received your flu shot yet?

EDITORIAL: Have you received your flu shot yet?

The influenza virus is both widespread and prone to rapid mutation, meaning that every year millions of doses of vaccine are manufactured based on the four most prominent strains recorded during the previous flu season in the opposite hemisphere. Current vaccines, which require experts to pick the flu strains that they believe are going to circulate in a given year, are typically 40 to 70 percent effective in the USA, though in some years protection is as low as 20 percent.

Is the flu shot checked? Now it appears other important mismatches are triggered because vaccines are grown inside chicken eggs.

Hensley said people should still get vaccinated. He concedes, though, "that's not easy to do, and that's expensive-very expensive". H3N2 is again a big force and this year's vaccine includes the same strain - with the same problems - as last year's. The strain that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration chose for the seasonal vaccine did indeed closely match the viruses that sickened people. But it has always been known that the viruses also evolve in these egg hosts. This year, it was a particularly bad flu season in Australia with H3N2 strains being most prevalent.

In the lab, they coupled the H1N1 virus with human antibodies - immune system soldiers that fight off foreign invaders. The sugar made it hard for antibodies to stick, so it helped the virus avoid immune destruction. That may herald a bad season for the U.S.as well. Essentially, they'd be creating a new vaccine. "The cost to make a new vaccine is huge", he said. These prime the immune system to recognize and respond to the virus when someone becomes infected. "What our group has developed is a vaccine that protects against all co-circulating strains of H3N2 viruses, so we might be able to one day replace the seasonal flu vaccine with this more broadly cross-protective vaccine".

Basically, "in acquiring that mutation, the vaccine looks like a triangle, but the viruses that are circulating look like a circle", Hensley says. They mutate so that they can bind with those cells. Getting vaccinated is the best protection against the flu, and compliments other prevention measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick.

These egg-based changes bode ill for the real world.

People age 65 and older are at high risk according to the Center for Disease Control. Since May 21, 2017, the agency has analyzed H3N2 viruses that have circulated in the USA and internationally.

Even though the vaccine is not 100 percent effective in preventing flu, it can reduce the severity of flu symptoms. This futility is not surprising since this egg-grown vaccine still contains the two mutations described in the new papers. Hensley said he did not know what that would cost. It is using next-generation genetic sequencing to study egg-induced mutations in the hopes of identifying some that improve rather than reduce vaccine effectiveness. They then tested several variants against human antibodies.

A number of researchers are investigating different strategies to make a universal flu shot, including developing vaccines that target the "stem" of the hemagglutinin protein (which tends to change less from season to season) rather than the head.

Island Health reminded residents last month to get a flu shot early to protect themselves and their loved ones this season.

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