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Vaccination against Influenza

Vaccination against influenza with an influenza vaccine is often recommended for high-risk groups, such as children and the elderly, or in people who have asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or are immuno-compromised. Influenza vaccines can be produced in several ways; the most common method is to grow the virus in fertilized hen eggs. After purification, the virus is inactivated (for example, by treatment with detergent to produce an inactivated-virus vaccine. Alternatively, the virus can be grown in eggs until it loses virulence and the avirulent virus given as a live vaccine. The effectiveness of these influenza vaccines are variable. Due to the high mutation rate of the virus, a particular influenza vaccine usually confers protection for no more than a few years. Every year, the World Health Organization predicts which strains of the virus are most likely to be circulating in the next year, allowing pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines that will provide the best immunity against these strains.
Vaccines have also been developed to protect poultry from avian influenza. These vaccines can be effective against multiple strains and are used either as part of a preventative strategy, or combined with culling in attempts to eradicate outbreaks.

It is possible to get vaccinated and still get influenza. The vaccine is reformulated each season for a few specific flu strains but cannot possibly include all the strains actively infecting people in the world for that season. It takes about six months for the manufacturers to formulate and produce the millions of doses required to deal with the seasonal epidemics; occasionally, a new or overlooked strain becomes prominent during that time and infects people although they have been vaccinated (as by the H3N2 Fujian flu in the 2003–2004 flu season). It is also possible to get infected just before vaccination and get sick with the very strain that the vaccine is supposed to prevent, as the vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective.

Figure 1. Vaccination against influenza virus.

The 2006–2007 season was the first in which the CDC had recommended that children younger than 59 months receive the annual influenza vaccine. Vaccines can cause the immune system to react as if the body were actually being infected, and general infection symptoms (many cold and flu symptoms are just general infection symptoms) can appear, though these symptoms are usually not as severe or long-lasting as influenza. The most dangerous side effect is a severe allergic reaction to either the virus material itself or residues from the hen eggs used to grow the influenza; however, these reactions are extremely rare.

In addition to vaccination against seasonal influenza, researchers are working to develop a vaccine against a possible influenza pandemic. The rapid development, production, and distribution of pandemic influenza vaccines could potentially save millions of lives during an influenza pandemic. Due to the short time frame between identification of a pandemic strain and need for vaccination, researchers are looking at non-egg-based options for vaccine production. Live attenuated (egg-based or cell-based) technology and recombinant technologies (proteins and virus-like particles) could provide better "real-time" access and be produced more affordably, thereby increasing access for people living in low- and moderate-income countries, where an influenza pandemic may likely originate. As of July 2009, more than 70 known clinical trials have been completed or are ongoing for pandemic influenza vaccines. In September 2009, the US Food and Drug Administration approved four vaccines against the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (the current pandemic strain), and expect the initial vaccine lots to be available within the following month.