Scientists claim one of the reasons influenza spreads at a rapid pace claiming more and more lives each flu season is due to the vaccine’s inability to protect individuals for longer periods of time. In order to keep future outbreaks in check, a team of researchers focuses on developing a flu vaccine with a long-lasting effect of up to ten years.
According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only two in five Americans have received flu shots so far. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ deputy director, Barney Graham, believes that the scientists’ inability to design things at atomic level was responsible for stalling medical advancements up until this point. He further adds that modern molecular technology, which became available only recently stands at the core of the new formula.
Data pulled on patients exhibiting flu symptoms revealed that even though the illness could affect anybody, children under the age of five and elderly people are most susceptible to contracting the virus. On average, flu outbreaks are responsible for up to 5 million severe cases each year, worldwide. Furthermore, nearly 500,000 patients die from complications, says the World Health Organization.
The researchers have identified two major seasonal flu viruses that can affect humans. Unlike type B virus, the A influenza virus is constantly changing, forcing scientists to come up with different flu vaccines that target a certain string each year. Moreover, type A is also responsible for yearly epidemics. Based on the unique combinations of neuraminidase and hemagglutinin that cover the surface of the virus, scientists classified type A influenza viruses into subtypes.
At this point, flu vaccines target the hemagglutinin head. However, it changes every year. In order for the long-lasting formula to work, Graham’s team of researchers are focusing on the hemagglutinin’s stem, which, unlike the head, always stays the same. In total, three research teams are working on developing the new flu vaccine. One group is focusing on stabilizing the stem after removing the head. Using recombinant DNA techniques, another team has built a new virus in the lab. They used the new virus to design a vaccine based on its conserved elements. Ultimately, the third group developed a vaccine which targeted the strains most common for the past century. However, designing a flu shot capable of providing lifetime protection against the virus is highly unlikely, believe the researchers. Nevertheless, they are confident that if they succeed, the new flu vaccine should protect humans from future epidemics for up to ten years.
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