Ever wondered why some people get their seasonal Influenza Vaccine—the common “Flu shot”—and then get sick anyway? The answer may come as a surprise: it’s because they weren’t really vaccinated for the Flu—or more precisely, the Influenza Vaccine that they received didn’t protect them against the virus that made them sick.
To protect against every strain of the Flu—and this is purely hypothetical—you couldn’t get just one vaccination.
Each year the World Health Organization (WHO) collects surveillance data from 130 national influenza centers stationed in 101 countries. These centers conduct a continual surveillance of the current influenza infection trends worldwide. In addition, global samples of the current viruses are collected and sent to five collaborating WHO disease prevention centers to compare reference and research on Influenza. The Centers are: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, the National Institute for Medical Research in London, United Kingdom, the Victoria Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia, the National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, Japan, and the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.
It’s this tremendous amount of annually collected data that determines the makeup of that year’s “perfect” Influenza Vaccine cocktail. The Centers for Disease Control state that “The seasonal flu vaccine is a trivalent vaccine (a three component vaccine) with each component selected to protect against one of the three main groups of influenza viruses circulating in humans.”
But can they really get them all? What if they miss one?
This isn’t just a playfully grisly speculation.
Fun Flu Fact #1: Did you know that there is an endless number of potential strains of the Influenza Virus?
The Influenza Virus is commonly divided into 3 separate categories based on their physical structure. The groups—Influenza A, B, and C—are then subdivided further into more specific virus classifications. Within these classifications there are hundreds of possible variants—180 in Influenza A alone—and new strains pop up each year. Technically speaking, someone can’t be protected against the Flu; at least they can’t be protected against all of the flus. Just one influenza vaccination can’t protect someone from everything.
Does this mean that the WHO can overlook a potentially serious strain of the Influenza Virus and society wouldn’t be prepared for it? Couldn’t that lead to a pandemic?
Fun Flu Fact #2: This has already happened. Twice.
As recently as 2009 a strain of the flu known as H1N1—also known as “Swine Flu” or “Mexican Flu”—was identified. By April the H1N1 strain was appearing globally. This version of the flu was a mixing of genetic material between bird, pig, and human flu viruses. This pandemic—an epidemic of disease that spreads among a human population over a large region—resulted in the eventual deaths of more than 250,000 people worldwide. And get this: some recent reconsideration of the 2009 pandemic death-toll-data by researchers at George Washington University concluded that the numbers may have been as high as 400,000.
What’s interesting about the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 is that it wasn’t the first time it had happened. The H1N1 strain of the virus wasn’t “new.”
H1N1 was the cause of the 1918 “Spanish Flu.” This global instance of the outbreak resulted in a number of deaths that is estimated as high as 50 million people.
All of that was caused by one strain of the Influenza Virus.
Influenza is a tricky thing. Every year new variations are discovered due to the virus’ propensity for mutation. And there is no end in sight.
How can the public protect against the Flu if they don’t know which version is looming around the hypothetical corner? To be “fully protected” against all possible influenzas would require an endless amount of sleeve rolling. You can’t get just one.
As it turns out, however, the seemingly endless number of viruses may not be the problem. It might be the fault of vaccine technology.
Vaccines don’t target the “whole virus” per se. Vaccines target particular parts of the virus in each strain. The targets are proteins, and they are the culprits responsible for the flip-flop-flip of a season’s predominant flu threat. It’s these proteins that continually change, providing us with each year’s newest installment of flu fashion. The vaccines can only respond to new flus, leaving us one step behind the insidious influenzas.
This does not mean it is time to panic, however. There is hope on the medical-research horizon.
A research report from the University of Georgia suggests a better way to approach the issue. Biao He, a professor of infectious diseases in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine reported this to the Journal of Virology: “influenza viruses change their surface proteins for various reasons and by various means. As a result, we need annual vaccination to match the circulating strains.”
His vaccine bypasses the fickle surface proteins altogether and shoots straight for a viral protein (internal) called a nucleoprotein. This internal protein is detrimental for any flu virus’ replication.
He’s vaccine, an improvement on attempts previously completed, hopes to target the internal nucleoprotein. This is based off of a canine parainfluenza virus 5, or PIV5. In lab tests a single dose of the vaccine prevented a mouse from contracting H1N1 and H5N1—two different sub-types of the Influenza A virus.
“This finding suggests flu vaccines can protect against multiple strains, thus fewer flu vaccinations will be necessary,” said He, who also a member of the Faculty of Infectious Diseases.
This new vaccine technology is not yet available to the general public, however. The research is incomplete and approval for use in humans may take as long as a decade. So what can one do for the next 10 years?
Despite the significant bad press given to infamous strains of the flu virus—remember “Avian Flu,” and the “Swine Flu”—pandemic level outbreaks are few and far between. Even though there are flu related deaths every year—numbers ranging widely from 3,000 to 4,900 annually—they are few and far between.
Avoiding the flu is a challenge, but limiting exposure to people sick with the virus, keeping healthy eating and exercise habits and getting an annual Influenza Vaccine is a great place to start.
Remember, this one final Fun Flu Fact: just because the Influenza Vaccine can’t target every single potential strain of the Influenza Virus doesn’t mean that every strain can attack the body.
Many of the flu viruses that society is exposed to on a yearly basis have been around for so long that our immune systems are already prepped to repel boarders.
Ever wonder why one doesn’t get the Flu more often? Simple. Our bodies, and the good people at the World Health Organization are working around the clock to make sure that the Influenza Virus is kept at bay. And if they weren’t? Then society would have to get an Influenza Vaccination for every color in the Flu Virus rainbow, because you can’t get just one.
By Matt Darjany