Seasonal flu is more than just the sniffles. It can be fatal. In fact, there are approximately 36,000 flu-related deaths in the United States every year. That’s why, every year, health authorities urge people to get the flu vaccine.
The reason that message gets repeated is that the vaccine is needed every year, because the virus changes every year. While the technique for making a vaccine for a specific strain of influenza is known, the process still needs to be repeated annually. Medical researchers have to examine the flu virus anew each year in order to create a vaccine that specifically protects against it. The protean nature of the virus also means that last year’s shot won’t protect you this year. In fact, the virus changes itself in such a way that the shot you got last year will never protect you again.
The good news is that the shot you get five years from now—if not sooner—may protect you for life. Canadian researcher have recently begun testing a universal flu vaccine that protects against every strain, not just the current one. It even works in people who have been vaccinated for previous forms of the virus. This vaccination procedure takes advantage of the antibody that body itself produces to fight off flu.
The universal vaccine consists of, essentially, the body of a flu virus, but with all identifying details—which point to the specific type of flu the virus is associated with—removed. So the body knows it is flu, and is able to react to it as flu, without knowing what type it is. Though the idea of the technique is straightforward, it is only in recent years that advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering have made it possible to actually do it. Previously there was no way to get the body to recognize flu and respond appropriately without an indication of the particular strain.
In addition to a universal vaccine, researchers are hoping to create the first-ever cure for the flu. In addition to being effective in patients who have been previously vaccinated, the universal vaccine may be effective in people who’ve already been exposed, or even people who are already showing symptoms.
Human studies of the vaccine have not yet been begun, though they are expected. So it may be some time before the universal vaccine is a reality. In the meantime, be sure to get your annual flu shot.