The 2017 – 2018 flu season has been one of the most severe we’ve seen in decades. The rates of infections has been much higher than usual this season, with flu strains sweeping across all regions of the US, as well as many other parts of the world. In the US, there are 140,000-710,000 flu related hospitalizations annually. Globally, flu epidemics cause 3-5 million severe cases and 300,000-500,000 deaths every year.
As a result of this, a recent congressional hearing in the US into the current national influenza responses has shown the desperate need for development in diagnosis, drugs and vaccines in order to deal with future epidemics effectively. According to Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the group has helped to introduce 23 new vaccines and drugs. However, he noted that “we have not had a new class of antivirals for 20 years.”
One of the biggest setbacks in the development of drugs is the constantly adapting virus is becoming resistant to the currently approved antiviral, oseltamivir phosphate. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases expressed his concerns over the current effectiveness rate of the vaccine. The 2017-2018 season has seen only 36% effectiveness, and it’s thought that the manufacturing process could be part of the problem.
He said “Egg-based technology is time-honored indeed. It has been effective, but it is antiquated. We need to graduate into the 21st century. Although cell-based technologies are better, recombinant DNA technology is the way of the future. It is always better to get vaccinated than to not get vaccinated.” Acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anne Schuchat, agreed that “vaccinating children can be lifesaving against the flu.”
The vaccine has shown to be 59% effective in young children, and Schuchat noted that it’s still highly recommended that those in high risk groups get immunized to protect against health complications from seasonal influenza. “We do know that the vaccines are providing protection to many, and they’re mitigating the severity of the disease,” she said. “We have more data than ever before.”
New research on why the influenza vaccine has only been modestly effective in recent years shows that immune history with the flu influences a person’s response to the vaccine. Low effectiveness of the flu vaccine is often blamed on problems with how the vaccine is designed and produced. Sometimes, the flu strains chosen for the vaccine are a poor match for those that end up circulating in the public, especially in years when the H3N2 strain predominates. The majority of flu vaccines given around the world are also grown in eggs, which can cause the virus to mutate and differ from circulating strains, and thus become less protective. In 2012-13, the H3N2 component of the flu vaccine was effective in just 39 percent of people.