The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spend the entire year researching how flu viruses change and what can be done to prepare the public for them. Despite these exhaustive preparations, this year's flu strain struck early and hard, resulting in initial shortages in vaccine supplies. Dr. Jesse Goodman, chief scientist at the FDA, spoke with U.S. News about the challenges posed by the current season, the importance of widespread public access to vaccines, and the future of flu research. Excerpts:
How does this season compare to previous ones?
This has been a flu season that started relatively earlier in the year than average, and it's come on pretty intensely. This type of flu virus, the H3N2 virus, sometimes can cause seasons that are relatively severe, and particularly put the elderly at high risk for complications of flu.
How effective is the current flu vaccine?
The CDC estimates that this year's flu vaccine has been around 62 percent effective in reducing medically attended illnesses. So, while it's not 100 percent effective, the majority of the people who have been vaccinated have been prevented from getting significant influenza infection, which can result in the complications that kill people.
Is there anything being done to further improve its efficacy?
There are a number of efforts to further improve the response to flu vaccines. One is what's been called a high-dose flu vaccine, which has a higher than normal amount of the antigen, which causes the immune system to react against the vaccine, that's intended specifically for use in the elderly. There will be these new vaccines that will have an extra [influenza type B] strain available next year. This one won't make it more effective against any given strain, but may be particularly beneficial for children. And there are new efforts aimed at creating vaccines that might be able to recognize the flu even when it changes. But those are years away.
Is the flu vaccine still available?
Because of the interest and attention to a flu season that came early and with some force, it increased demand for the vaccine during a short time period. So, there were some temporary dislocations between the supply and the demand. There is still vaccine available, and people who haven't been vaccinated and who want to should still try to get it.
What FDA-approved products are most effective in treating the symptoms of flu?
There are two that are very active against the flu that is circulating now, and those are called Tamiflu, a pill medicine, and then there's a medicine that can be inhaled, which is called Relenza. These can be effective particularly if they're given early on. Most of the evidence supports their effectiveness when given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Were there any advancements in influenza research this year?
We just this year approved two new technologies for producing flu vaccine: one using cells instead of eggs to grow the virus, and another using recombinant DNA technology to make the vaccine. These are going to particularly help us be better prepared if there ever were a pandemic.
What can the public do to prepare for the flu season each year?
I think the best thing is to make getting flu vaccine routine. It is currently recommended by the CDC for nearly everyone over 6 months of age. During flu season, careful personal hygiene, frequent handwashing, covering your cough, and if you are sick staying away from other people. If you do get flu, get medical attention early, and particularly if you're in a risk group for complications, get antiviral treatment.