Could a single vaccine help us to stay flu free forever? The answer is “Yes, quite probably – but not just yet”.
Two research papers published in the prestigious journals Science and Nature Medicine have caused great excitement lately, prompting headlines about the development of a universal flu vaccine.
At the moment, the annual flu vaccine protects against three or four strains of flu virus (depending on the vaccine). A network of experts around the world, coordinated by the World Health Organisation, selects the strains considered most likely to cause ill-health in the coming flu season.
Very often, they get this spot on. From time to time, because flu viruses can change, the vaccine is not a perfect match. And, as the viruses circulating in our communities can be different from one year to the next, health authorities recommend having the flu vaccine every year.
This, to be frank, is a bit of a nuisance! It means that every year, people at risk of serious complications from influenza – such as pregnant women, older people and those with chronic conditions – must be reminded to have the annual vaccine.
Many of the people who should have the vaccine do not have it. A number of these unprotected people will, inevitably, catch the flu. Of those, some will suffer serious illness – potentially leading to their death.
So, a once-and-for-all flu vaccine would be ideal. But research takes time and it is still early days in the hunt for a universal flu vaccine – even if we are edging closer to the Holy Grail thanks to these recent publications.
To date, tests on mice vaccinated with a candidate universal flu vaccine have been encouraging, while research shows that ferrets and monkeys were partially protected.
It is also not yet clear how long immunity will last. For example, the vaccine might be effective against all strains of flu but immunity could wane after a number of years.
It is anyone’s guess how long it will take to get to the stage where a safe, effective and long-lasting universal flu vaccine is available.
In the meantime, this year’s flu season is just weeks away and the best way to be protected is to have the seasonal flu vaccine.