In this photo taken Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, Carol Evans, left, offers a comforting hand to co-worker Dusty Reese, center, as RN Kandie Halleran administers Reese a flu shot in the main lobby rotunda area of City Hall in St. Louis.

Laurie Skrivan, Associated Press

In search of a universal flu shot

  • Article by: CARL ZIMMER
  • New York Times
  • October 29, 2012 - 8:04 PM

As this year's flu season gathers steam, doctors and pharmacists have a fresh stock of vaccines to offer their patients. The vaccines usually provide strong protection against the virus, but only for a while. Vaccines for other diseases typically work for years or decades. With the flu, though, next fall it will be time to get another dose.

"In the history of vaccinology, it's the only one we update year to year," said Gary J. Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

That has been the case ever since the flu vaccine was introduced in the 1950s. But a flurry of recent studies on the virus has brought some hope for a change. Nabel and other flu experts foresee a time when seasonal flu shots are a thing of the past, replaced by long-lasting vaccines.

"That's the goal: two shots when you're young, and then boosters later in life. That's where we'd like to go," Nabel said. He predicted that scientists would reach that goal before long -- "in our lifetime, for sure, unless you're 90 years old," he said.

Such a vaccine would be a great help in the fight against seasonal flu outbreaks, which kill an estimated 500,000 people a year. But in a review to be published in the journal Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses, Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University argues that they could potentially have an even greater benefit.

Periodically, a radically new type of flu has evolved and rapidly spread around the world. A pandemic in 1918 is estimated to have killed 50 million people.

With current technology, scientists would not have a vaccine for a new pandemic strain until the outbreak was well under way. An effective universal flu vaccine would already be able to fight it.

"Universal vaccination with universal vaccines would put an end to the threat of global disaster that pandemic influenza can cause," Gilbert wrote.

Vaccines work by enhancing the protection the immune system already provides.

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