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December 4, 2017

This year's flu vaccine might not work very well. You should get it anyway.

Daily Briefing

    By Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, Contributing Editor

    The cold and flu season has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, as the Daily Briefing team in Washington, D.C., can attest. A "highly scientific" poll of participants in our team's chat room found that 77% of us either are currently sick or newly recovering.

    This holiday season: How to avoid the flu when you fly

    The good news is that, despite our team's collective misfortune, there do exist some scientifically proven ways to prevent illness during cold and flu season—most notably, getting a flu shot. (Sadly, the influenza vaccine can't prevent the common cold, which has afflicted most of us here at the Daily Briefing.)

    But experts last week said the current U.S. flu vaccine is unlikely to be effective against the influenza strain most likely to hit us this year, and they called on scientists to create better vaccines in the future—including a "universal" vaccine that would end the need for an annually updated flu shot.

    Signs warn of a severe flu season

    On Wednesday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and colleagues warned that early data indicate the United States could experience a "relatively severe influenza season," and that vaccines against the virus might not be very effective.

    Fauci and colleagues made the predictions based on how the 2017 flu season played out in Australia, where the season is now coming to a close. According to the authors, Australian public health officials reported record-high flu rates and above-average hospitalizations and deaths related to the flu.

    Preliminary data show the most common strain of flu in Australia was the influenza A virus, or H3N2, and that the vaccine administered to Australians was only about 10% effective at protecting them against that strain. According to Fauci, the vaccine's failure was due to "the very process of how we make the vaccine"—which involves living cells and eggs—"creates an unanticipated, almost accidental mismatch, which is what happened in Australia this year."

    U.S. residents currently are receiving the same vaccine as the one that was given to Australians, and data suggest the H3N2 strain also will be particularly virulent in the United States this flu season, Fauci and his colleagues wrote. As such, the authors wrote, "It is possible that we will experience low vaccine effectiveness against [H3N2] viruses and a relatively severe influenza season if they predominate."

    Can a 'universal' flu vaccine cure what ails us?

    Given vaccine underperformance, the scientific community "must consider whether our current vaccines can be improved and whether longer-term, transformative vaccine approaches are needed to minimize influenza-related morbidity and mortality," Fauci and colleagues wrote. The authors called for increased efforts to develop a so-called "universal" flu vaccine, which could protect against all strains of the flu.

    This is easier said than done, of course: Influenza is a diverse, fast-mutating virus, which is why scientists historically have settled for one-off vaccines targeted to the viruses currently in circulation. But Fauci said developing such a vaccine is "a high priority" for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—though he noted we're likely a few years away from such a development.

    In the meantime: Yes, you should still get your flu shot

    Even though the current U.S. flu vaccine might not work very well, experts still advise U.S. residents to get vaccinated.

    Fauci explained that the current immunization still will protect some individuals from contracting the flu, and that vaccinated individuals likely would experience a shorter bout of flu if they contract it. Plus, for some health care professionals, skipping the flu vaccine could cost them their jobs.

    Heading home for the holidays? How to avoid the flu when you fly.

    Download this infographic to learn about both the obvious and less obvious locations where germs on planes are rampant.

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