Outmaneuvering Influenza

Flu season is gearing up in the northern hemisphere, and this year’s strains appear more virulent than usual.  In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control declared an epidemic on January 11; the CDC estimates that between 3,000 and 49,000 people die from influenza or its complications every year.  By comparison, the infamous flu of 1918 may have killed 500,000 Americans.  Although the very young, elderly, and diseased bear the highest risk of death, healthy adults still bear the responsibility of minimizing overall transmission of the virus.  In other words, everyone should get vaccinated.  On ERV, Abbie Smith writes that the influenza virus is highly mutable, and we must devise a fresh vaccine every year in anticipation of its new forms.  This year’s vaccine has an efficacy of 62%, better than average.  Meanwhile, on We Beasties, Kevin Bonham explains what happens when you are infected by more than one pathogen at a time.


Vaccine Varieties

On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski examines the ethical dilemma of testing the anthrax vaccine in children. If a widespread attack were to occur, we would want to know the safety and efficacy of the vaccine beforehand. But is an attack likely enough to warrant testing the vaccine on children? On ERV, Abbie Smith explains how vaccines are made: “Sometimes we use dead viruses. Sometimes we use crippled viruses. Sometimes we dont need to use whole viruses at all—little chunks of the virus are fine. Sometimes we just need chunks of the virus, but we keep them dressed up in hollow membranes.” Sometimes none of these approaches work (against diseases such as HIV, TB, and malaria). However a new vaccine against malaria may prevent about half of infections. Other vaccines can be nearly 100% effective. Such is the case with the HPV vaccine, which the CDC is now recommending for boys as well as girls. The vaccine protects against several variants of human papillomavirus, which can cause changes in a cell’s DNA that lead to cancer. In fact, from 2001 to 2004, HPV caused 71.7% of oral cancers. Finally, on Respectful insolence, Orac considers the efficacy of the flu vaccine, which reduces the infection rate from 2.7 out of 100 adults to 1.2 out of 100. Orac writes, “our current generation of vaccines are far from perfect, but they do pretty well and, given how safe they are, currently represent the best defense we have against influenza.”