The latest numbers from the Center for Disease Control show that, although flu activity is declining in the United States, rates remain relatively high. February 8 marked the end of the flu season’s sixth week and the CDC reports that, this year, adults aged 18-64 accounted for an estimated 60 percent of flu-related hospitalizations. In an attempt to create safer and more effective flu vaccines, influenza researchers with the National Institute of Health (NIH) are now offering big bucks to those willing to voluntarily inject themselves with the flu virus.
“Are you healthy? Help us fight the flu!” states the NIH website. Researchers are actively recruiting healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 50 to participate in one of the NIH’s “influenza challenge studies.” During the study, doctors will expose volunteers to a flu virus and study the virus as it runs its course. By relying solely on the body’s inherent healing process to treat the virus, researchers are hoping that the information gathered during the study will help them discover and develop better ways to prevent the flu. Researchers are also hopeful that the study results will enable them to improve treatment measures for people who contract the sometimes deadly virus.
“Influenza is highly infectious and contagious,” the study guidelines warn. The virus is known to cause “considerable illness in the United States each year.” In addition to focusing on subject participants between the ages of 18 and 50, the NIH lists eligibility criteria that include non-smokers, folks who do not live with people over the age of 65 or under the age of 5, and healthy adults without serious medical conditions or otherwise compromised immune systems.
To incentivize healthy adults to voluntarily inject themselves with the flu virus, influenza researchers with the NIH are offering big bucks. The Associated Press reports that volunteers can earn up to $3,000 for participating in the study. The NIH study guidelines state that, in order to determine eligibility, volunteers must undergo a rigorous three to five hour screening process that includes an overview of medical history, a physical examination, a series of blood tests to screen against pregnancy and HIV, urine drug testing, chest x-rays, and tests to assess heart function. Adhering to the strictest of safety precautions, researchers will inject subjects with a mild strain of the virus via a syringe into the right nostril. Patients will then be quarantined for nine days and released once test results show they are no longer contagious.
Why not just study those who are already sick with the flu? Researchers share that they are interested in specifically studying the immune system’s immediate response to the voracious virus, admitting that the way the body naturally fights off the illness is still somewhat of a mystery.
Dr. Matthew Memoli, an infectious disease specialist with the NIH, stated that, although flu vaccines are working, there is room for improvement. Vaccines tend not to work as well in people aged 65 and older as they do in younger adults. The influenza research team hopes that, by offering big bucks to inject healthy volunteers with the flu, they can work to uncover important evidence around how healthy immune systems fend off the virulent virus that contributes to an estimated 200,000 hospitalizations per year.
By Katie Bloomstrom