University of Georgia researchers are receiving millions of federal dollars to help create a “universal” flu vaccine.
But what does that term mean? And will a breakthrough vaccine persuade more Americans to get flu shots?
Right now, fewer than 40 percent of adults get a flu shot. And that’s bad.
During the 2017-18 flu season, at least 145 people in Georgia died from influenza. (A few deaths may not have been recorded as flu-related.) During that period, the flu vaccination coverage estimates among all adult age groups were lower than in the previous seven flu seasons, the CDC reported.
The National Institutes of Health recently signed a contract with the University of Georgia for funding to develop a universal flu shot. Led by Ted Ross, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of Infectious Diseases and director of UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology, the project aims to create a vaccine to protect against many strains of influenza virus.
The NIH will offer $8 million in the first year and up to $130 million over the next seven years, Ross says.
He says he believes a broader vaccine could affect the flu-shot statistics “because the same vaccine can be given at any time and move multiple years without reformulation.”
“The goal of our NIAID contract is to develop broadly reactive influenza vaccines to elicit protective immunity against all versions of influenza,” Ross says.
Glen Nowak, a UGA professor and director of the Center for Health & Risk Communication, has done research concerning pandemic influenza vaccines and the communication challenges that come with them.
What ‘universal’ means
The term “universal” that’s used often to describe Ross’s upcoming flu vaccine may be misleading, Nowak says.
The actual definition, according to NIH, is fourfold. To be considered “universal,” the vaccine must be “at least 75 percent effective, protect against group I and II influenza A viruses, have durable protection that lasts at least a year, and be suitable for all age groups.”
Like Ross, Nowak thinks an improved vaccine could improve flu shot coverage statistics.
“Would it help get more people vaccinated? I think so,” Nowak says. “If you look at any age group, we’re sort of we reached a plateau. What will it take to get us to go to a higher plateau? I think it will be in improvement in the vaccine.”
`Nowak says with most vaccines — when scientists think they have a strong, viable candidate vaccine — it takes about 10 years from that point to get licensed and ready for use.
“I think there’s people that think that if Ted discovered something tomorrow, we’re two or three years away,” Nowak says. “We’re a decade, probably a couple of billion dollars away, because clinical trials are expensive.”
When asked when he thinks the vaccine could potentially hit markets, Ross says it “could be as soon as seven years and as long as 20 years.”
Why don’t people get vaccinated?
People’s interest in getting a flu shot is highly correlated with their age, Nowak says, and CDC data support this. Older people are usually aware of the danger of flu, and health care officials make a point of urging seniors to get the shot. But many younger people view influenza as a manageable illness, Nowak says.
Ross says most young adults don’t see influenza as a serious infection, but more like having a cold.
“They may be miserable, but they’ll manage it,” Nowak says. “They’re not familiar with the fact that influenza can cause serious illness, and if it does cause serious illness, oftentimes it can cause hospitalization.”
Caleb Shelton, a junior environmental engineering major at Kennesaw State University, says he usually gets a flu shot every year.
“I think it’s important because there’s different strands of the flu virus every year,” Shelton says. “It can help you from getting sick in the future from that strain of virus.”
Health professionals face a challenge in convincing younger generations of the importance of the flu shot.
“Effectiveness is not as high as we’d like it to be and it’s not as high as recommended childhood vaccines,” Nowak says. “For some people, that’s a negative because they want it to be much more effective and their sense is that if it’s not at 80 percent to 90 percent effective, it’s not worth it.”
Payne Inman, a senior civil engineering major at Kennesaw State, doesn’t get flu shots.
“I’ve done some reading and one of the things that I found out was that it’s only about 35 percent effective,” Inman says. “I don’t know if that’s true or not but I read it a few years ago. That’s why I don’t get it because I feel like it’s not very effective either way.”
Not 100% effective
It’s true that no flu vaccine is 100 percent effective. Flu viruses vary each year, and even change within a season. Vaccines have to be reformulated each year, and the decisions on formulation have to be made six months early to allow for production. So the vaccine used in a particular flu season may turn out to be less effective than planned.
But limited effectiveness of vaccines is not a sound reason to skip the flu shot, Nowak says. “There’s nothing else that can provide you any protection,” he says. “So even protected at 10 percent, 20 percent, that’s better than anything else can offer.”
And public health officials point out that when vaccines reduce the level of influenza in a population, they can reduce the ability of the disease to spread within that population. To put it in personal terms, if a shot keeps you from getting the flu, you won’t spread the disease to someone else.
Many people also believe they can contract influenza from a flu shot, according to the CDC. But as Nowak says, that’s a misconception and “it’s essentially not true.”
There are various reasons why some people may still believe flu vaccines cause flu, Nowak says. One major reason is that some people don’t feel well after getting the shot. It’s not uncommon to have a low-grade fever, headache or muscle aches seven to 10 days after getting the vaccine, the CDC says.
However, these unpleasant side effects can actually be a sign that the vaccine is working, Nowak says.
“That’s what the immune response looks like: low-grade fever, lethargy, you’re not going to have as much energy,” Nowak says. “That’s a good thing. But we haven’t really done a good job of letting people know that’s a good thing.”
Madeline Laguaite is a freelance journalist and a health and medical journalism graduate student at the University of Georgia. She is particularly interested in LGBTQ health and public health. She has a public/professional Twitter at @MLaguaite and a portfolio at madelinelaguaite.com