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October 15, 2019

The Flu Blues: Influenza and Vaccines

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It’s officially that point in the semester: either you’re currently sick, have just recovered from being sick or are about to get sick. Flu season has begun, and with every cough, sneeze and sniffle, we are reminded of the common struggle of slugging through classes, weighed down by illness.

While there are many preventative measures for the common flu, getting a flu shot is a popular and accessible option. Prof. Gary Whittaker, microbiology and immunology, explained the science behind the flu vaccine and why students should consider getting one.

According to Whittaker, the symptoms of the flu range from coughing to full-blown fevers. He said that these symptoms are caused by infection, usually in the lungs, and the immune system’s subsequent response.

“[The virus] is aerosolized and comes in through the airways. The virus itself is localized, but the effects are more systemic because of the immune response,” Whittaker said.

Although flu vaccines are generally effective, Whittaker said that it can be difficult to ensure that a seasonal flu vaccine will mimic the right strain.

“[Influenza] is tricky to manage because it changes a lot, it can be considered a shapeshifter in some ways. The envelope protein surface of the virus is very adaptable and it will change shape inside the immune system,” Whittaker said.

According to Whittaker, accurately matching the vaccine to the correct flu strain is crucial for a vaccine’s efficacy. Vaccines allow the body’s immune system to recognize something that resembles a virus and then develop antibodies against molecular signals found on the viral surfaces.

“The virus will be grown and prepared for the vaccine, and the goal is to predict what the upcoming virus is … there is a bit of educated guesswork involved,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker explained that the most reliable method of making vaccines is growing influenza in chicken eggs, and this process has been around for a long time. However, he said that the way that vaccines are made can be improved upon.

“There’s a big push to improve [vaccine production] because it’s not the most efficient way to make a vaccine, but it’s the most established way,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker said that vaccines are essential, especially during flu season because it reduces symptoms and prevents the virus from being more contagious than it already is.

“The flu vaccine is not a guaranteed way to prevent the flu, but it is certainly the best option that we have right now,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker said that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the federal government are currently investing in new approaches to flu vaccinations.

Whittaker concluded that although there has been significant backlash recently regarding vaccines, vaccines are extremely important for public health and medicine.

“It’s easy to forget what contributions vaccines have made over the past few decades or so, and it has made an enormous impact on public health,” Whittaker said.

Additionally, most people think of coughing and sneezing as the main ways in which the flu spreads. However, Whittaker explained that touching surfaces is also an easy way for transmission to occur.

According to Whittaker, it is important to cover coughs and sneezes not only because the flu is airborne, but also because germs can easily get onto surfaces that multiple people touch on a daily basis, such as doorknobs or tables in Zeus.

“A lot of [the flu spread] is through air, so coughing, sneezing, and breathing in air (especially in close proximity) – but also through surfaces,” Whittaker said.

Even though the flu is quite common during this time of the year, small changes (covering your mouth when coughing) and large changes (vaccine advancement) can make a huge impact.