Colds and flu

Updated 05 December 2014

Too late for new vaccine against mutated flu virus

It is too late to develop a new flu vaccine better equipped to protect against the predominant flu virus in the United States. The US Centres for Disease Control explains . . .


The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday it is too late to make new flu vaccines for the current flu season that could better protect against the predominant flu virus now circulating in the United States.

On Wednesday, the CDC sent an advisory to doctors noting that one component of this year's flu vaccine was only partially protective against the predominant flu virus, known as influenza A (H3N2), which has mutated since the current flu shots were made.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said it takes four months to make a new flu vaccine even using newer cell-based technologies, too long to be helpful in the current flu season.

Past seasons dominated by H3N2 strains of flu have been severe, and the worry is that without a good match in this year's flu shot, many people could be hospitalized or die from flu this year.

Read: 5 ways to avoid the flu

Frieden encouraged people who have not been vaccinated to get a flu shot because it could still offer partial protection against the mutated H3N2 virus and good protection from other strains that might become predominant later this year. CDC testing shows the vaccine offers good protection from about half of the H3N2 flu strains circulating, as well as H1N1 and influenza B strains.

CDC is urging people to seek medical help if they become severely ill with the flu and ask for an antiviral medication, such as Roche's Tamiflu or GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza.

Read: Watch out for these flu complications

Some experts question the CDC's methodology for predicting whether flu shots will work.

"No one really knows what is going on here with the flu strains and the match using the current methods," said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert from the University of Minnesota.

In a 2011 paper, Osterholm found flu shots only protected about 59 percent of the population. "For all we know, this vaccine may work as well as it does every other year."

Dr. Richard Zimmerman of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, however, said that, while not perfect, the methods offer "a reasonable proxy" for what will happen.

Zimmerman said a drift in the H3N2 component of the flu shot is "unwelcome news" for anyone who cares for the elderly, who are most at risk during flu seasons. He still recommends vaccination: "You do what you can do to protect yourself."

Read more:
High dose flu vaccine more effective for seniors
Steer clear of colds medication for babies
Colds and flu can raise the risk of stroke in children


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Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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