The Atlantic has an interesting article about recent efforts to create a flu vaccine that protects patients against influenza for decades, or even their entire lifetime. Currently, the flu vaccine helps the body produce antibodies that attack influenza surface proteins. The problem is that the flu is quick learner; it readily mutates ts surface proteins making the influenza vaccine ineffective. In a typical year, the flu vaccine is only about 60% effective (with effectiveness below 50% for those over 65).
New developments are focesed on targeting a new part of the influenza virus:
Instead of targeting the tips of the surface proteins, this kind of vaccine would target a part of the virus that doesn’t change so easily. Scientists have discovered that the stems of the surface proteins change very little. A stem vaccine might provide protection against many different kinds of flu—protection that could last for years or decades.
But, really, who cares? Is the flu that serious?
The answer is a definite yes. We have been lucky in recent years to avoid pandemics. However, the H1N1 influenza strain killed 284,400 people. The 1918 flu pandemic infected 500 million people across the world and killed 50 to 100 million of them—-3 to 5 percent of the world’s population.
The threat is not a thing of the past. Consider the recent H7N9 infections:
Two men in Shanghai died of the flu last March. It turned out that they were both infected with H7N9, a subtype of bird flu never seen before in humans. Since then, H7N9 has turned up throughout eastern China and in Taiwan. Out of the 136 people who had fallen ill as of mid-October, 45 died.
H7N9 infects chickens without making them sick, and so it has been able to spread invisibly. So far, only one case of probable human-to-human transmission has been found. But H7N9 might not need more than a few mutations to move easily from one person to another.
The prosperity of modern society hinges on protection against infectious disease. Let us not take for granted the relative health we have enjoyed in recent years and continue to be vigilant against the flu and all sources of infectious pathogens.