"The 'New' Flu Shot" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

The “New” Flu Shot

January 15, 2012 - Each year everyone is encouraged to get a flu shot. The formula for the vaccine is unique to the anticipated strain of flu that is circulating that year. Usually the epidemiologists are correct in their predictions as to what elements will effectively fight the current strain, but there is always uncertainty. Scientists are now developing a “super antibody” called F16 that can fight all types of influenza A viruses so that the vaccine would be the same each year. In fact, immunity might last even longer than a year so that one shot could last many years.

Many people often neglect getting their yearly flu shot; having to get only one vaccination every few years would give everyone better protection, especially the patient and those around him or her. In fact, a recent Consumer Reports survey showed that only 37 percent of people say they planned to get a flu shot this year, while 30 percent said they wouldn't and 31 percent said they weren't sure.

Influenza is a highly infectious viral illness that has been causing annual seasonal epidemics for many years – reported since at least the early 1500’s. In the United States complications of influenza cause an average of 36,000 deaths each year, primarily among the elderly. Influenza virus is transmitted, in most cases, by droplets through the coughing and sneezing of infected persons, although it can also be transmitted by direct contact. Typical symptoms include abrupt onset of fever (101°F to 102°F), headache, chills, fatigue, muscular pain or tenderness, sore throat, and nonproductive cough, and may include runny or stuffy nose. An annual influenza vaccination is the best method of protection against the disease. Other measures, such as frequent hand washing, staying home when sick, and the implementation of public health measures for universal respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette, will help stop the spread of influenza.

Flu viruses are unique in their ability to cause sudden infection in all age groups and on a global scale. When there is a major change in the influenza virus, to which all or most of the world’s population has never been exposed, they become extremely vulnerable. A pandemic—or global epidemic—results. Three pandemics occurred during the 20th century. The Spanish Flu of 1918 caused over 500,000 deaths in the United States and more than 20 million worldwide. The Asian Flu Pandemic of 1957-58 and the Hong Flu Pandemic in 1968-69 also had a significant impact, causing widespread illness and death. Recent outbreaks of human disease caused by avian influenza strains in Asia and Europe have highlighted the potential for new influenza strains to be introduced into the population.

An influenza pandemic has a greater potential to cause rapid increases in illness and death than virtually any other natural health threat. The impact of the next pandemic could have a devastating effect on the health and well being of the American public. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in the United States alone, up to 200 million people will be infected, 50 million people will require outpatient care; two million people will be hospitalized, and between 100,000 and 500,000 persons will die. Using software provided by the CDC, it was estimated that in Florida, there would be approximately 1.4 to 3.2 million outpatient visits, 33,600 to 78,400 hospital admissions, and 8,400 to 19,500 deaths during an influenza pandemic. Locally, we can estimate that in a predicted eight-week pandemic period with a 25% attack rate, we could have 1273 (655 to 1693) people infected, resulting in 1273 hospital admissions and 291 (215 to 440) deaths. This will increase hospital demand by 33% at peak time, ICU needs by 87%, and ventilator necessity by 53%.

Effective preventive and therapeutic measures including vaccines and antiviral agents will likely be in short supply, as will some antibiotics to treat secondary infections. This makes the availability of a universal, longer duration vaccine even more important as a method of preventing an epidemic for the population, in addition to helping individuals avoid the flu.

Francis Collins, chief of the National Institutes of Health, stated that with all the recent innovations, he is "guardedly optimistic" that a ¬universal vaccine will be available in the next five years.

In the meantime, be sure to get the annual recommend vaccination: it has almost no side effects, works reasonably well and keeps you and everyone around you safer.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.