Could a universal flu vaccine soon be a reality?

The annual flu vaccine will soon be obsolete if a universal flu vaccine becomes available.
The annual flu vaccine will soon be obsolete if a universal flu vaccine becomes available.

Influenza affects thousands of people globally every year, with one of the worst flu seasons recorded in the USA over the past winter. 

The influenza season in South Africa lasts roughly from the beginning of June to the end of September, which means that now is the time to get your annual flu shot. Our own flu season might be as severe or even worse than in the USA.

There is some debate about how long the annual vaccine against influenza will be around for, and if there might soon be a universal flu vaccine available that works against every strain. The short answer is maybe. The long answer is that it's more complicated.

What is at stake?

The complications of the influenza virus is a worldwide problem as it causes many deaths every year. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the leading cause of death among children younger than five is pneumonia, a secondary infection caused by flu.

According to a previous Health24 article, the South African economy loses more than R2 billion every year, and the average person misses four and a half days of school or work because of colds and flu.

The NICD states that influenza has the potential to become a novel pandemic virus, with high human-to-human transmission and a potentially high case fatality rate. This could have a tremendous toll on mortality globally and in South Africa. It is estimated that if a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic occurred today it would kill around 62 million people, and that 96% of these deaths would occur in the developing world.

Why is flu potentially such a deadly disease?

But why do you need to go for a flu shot every year, and why is it so difficult to manufacture a global flu injection which could fight all strains? A big part of the problem has been correctly predicting what strains of the influenza virus health officials should target in a given season.

The reason we need a flu vaccine every year is that the virus keeps mutating and changing, with several strains of the virus present in the environment at any given time.

Flu vaccines can also never be completely effective and only provide partial protection in an ongoing flu epidemic. 

The road towards a universal flu vaccine

Research towards a universal vaccine to target all strains of the influenza virus has been going on for some time.

In January 2018 it was reported that a team of researchers from the USA and China designed a vaccine that could “take the guesswork out of seasonal flu protection by boosting the immune system’s capacity to combat many viral strains”.

According to Scientific American, the researchers dissected the flu virus in the lab and tested how different mutations in each segment responded when exposed to interferon, a protein released by the body when viruses attack.

From this research, they were able to identify which mutation made the virus most likely to cause these protective interferons to be released.

If the results were as positive in humans as they were in mice and ferrets, this research could eliminate the need for an annual flu shot.

The challenge remains

While the research seems pretty straightforward, there are still obstacles in the path to a universal flu vaccine.

During this particular research, it was found that there was some form of cross-protection between a limited set of flu strains. This might not be the case for all the flu strains currently around and yet to come. According to the Scripps Research Institute, triggering a robust immune response to the flu virus can also put people at risk for other health complications, such as destroyed lung tissue and respiratory problems.

Protect yourself against flu this season

While there is no wonder-injection at present, the second best thing you can do is to ensure that you are vaccinated ahead of flu season. And on top of being vaccinated, there are other steps you can take to avoid getting sick:

  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly.
  • Sanitise your office space, especially your keyboard, mouse and telephone.
  • Take care of your immune system by eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and getting enough sleep.
  • Stay warm and dry.

Image credit: iStock

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