Brutal flu season leads to talk of a universal vaccine
Flu season is approaching its peak as hospitals and doctors continue to grapple with widespread illness across the country.
In Pennsylvania alone, the virus has contributed to 18 deaths, six of them younger than 65. Kyler Baughman, a seemingly healthy 21-year-old man from Latrobe , died of flu-related complications Dec. 28.
Experts have speculated this year's vaccine may only be 10 percent effective against a particularly nasty flu strain.
The brutal season has many wondering why there isn't a universal vaccine to protect against all strains of the flu.
“I think a universal vaccine is possible, but I'm not aware that it's going to happen any time soon,” said Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an Allegheny Health Network internal medicine physician. “Researchers have been working on it for years.”
The problem, he said, is that flu viruses mutate frequently, and it's difficult to produce a vaccine that would provide universal protection.
“The vaccines that have been most effective are used against viruses and bacteria that are relatively stable,” he said. “Viruses of the flu pose unique challenges because of so many unique mutations that can occur.”
Much this season's concern can be traced to Australia and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere, which struggled with a severe flu strain called H3N2. That same strain is now wreaking havoc on the U.S.
H3N2 appears to be a particular problem because it mutates rapidly, Itskowitz said.
A universal vaccine would give immune systems the ability to fight off all strains of the virus.
“A universal flu vaccine is such a challenge because it has to generate antibodies against a part of the virus that does not change and is constant from strain to strain,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease expert for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The influenza virus is one that is notorious for its ability to mutate and shuffle its genes so this has been a hard task.”
Still, Adalja believes such a vaccine is achievable.
“Over the past several years there's been much more emphasis given to the need for such a vaccine,” he said. “Ideally, it would be like the measles vaccine — durable protection with an initial series with no need for annual boosters.”
Until that happens, Itskowitz said vaccine experts could do a better job in combatting the H3N2 flu strain.
He said one solution this season could be rapid production of a new H3N2 vaccine to be administered this season for the most vulnerable population. A similar effort took place in 2009 during the swine flu pandemic.
“We're seeing elderly patients going to hospitals across the country with flu at epidemic levels even when they have been vaccinated,” he said.
Still, he said, a flu vaccine can reduce symptoms for those who contract the virus. The vaccine is generally about 40 percent to 50 percent effective annually.
The flu kills about 36,000 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Flu activity usually begins in October and peaks between December and March.
Through Jan. 6, the number of flu cases in Allegheny County totaled 1,842 and Westmoreland County had 658, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. A week earlier, there were 906 cases reported in Allegheny County and 318 in Westmoreland County.
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.