Our view: Focus on the flu virus, not just the latest new virus
When Ebola struck with a vengeance in West Africa in 2014 or SARS was reported in Asia in 2003, the viruses dominated the news and Americans were gripped by fear over the potential spread in the United States.
In the end, Ebola, while taking an enormous toll in Africa, killed two people in America, neither of whom contracted the disease in this country. SARS was diagnosed in just eight U.S. patients, and all recovered.
But the flu, neither exotic nor rare, garners too little attention and too few resources. It strikes millions of Americans and has killed anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000 annually in recent years. This year, in a particularly virulent flu season, 63 children have already died, along with many people in the prime of life. And this flu season still has weeks to go.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to release a report on the flu vaccine's effectiveness this season, which is expected to be relatively low for adults. (Nonetheless, authorities say it’s still worth getting a flu shot, particularly for children.) Even in the best of years, the vaccine is at most 60% effective.
How could this be for such a wellknown and routine disease? The answer is that the flu is unpredictable.
While the flu comes around every winter, says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, each season is “relatively unique.” The influenza virus mutates from year to year, what scientists call “genetic drift.” Unlike the measles vaccine, for example, the flu requires an updated vaccine each year to fight it.
The vaccination that gets produced for the USA is based on an intelligent, calculated guess based in part on what happens during flu season in the Southern Hemisphere. And when the vaccine and the circulating flu viruses are poorly matched, as appears to be the case this year, more sickness and more deaths can occur.
Another problem is that most flu vaccines are produced by growing viruses in eggs, an old system that might be less effective than newer methods such as growing viruses in cells or with molecular techniques that don’t involve growing the virus.
The biggest payoff would come with production of a “universal vaccine” — one that would protect against multiple versions of the flu for years, eliminate annual vaccinations, and be consistently effective. The tough part is figuring out how to produce such a vaccine — a task that takes research, resources, trials and time.
Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and seven fellow Democrats are set to introduce a measure today to provide $1 billion over the next five years for this effort. That’s a big chunk of change. But the CDC spent nearly $800 million on Ebola, money well spent to help find a vaccine for beleaguered Africans and to keep the disease from spreading around the world.
For all the attention on viruses such as Ebola, SARS, Zika and West Nile, influenza remains the biggest killer. Surely, America should invest in a better way to protect against a disease that sickens millions, costs billions of dollars in lost productivity and is fatal to thousands of Americans each year.