Wokingham Today

Flu shots not a magic bullet for the elderly uni study shows


ELDERLY people who find their annual flu shot is not helping them beat the virus may be lacking in effective natural killer cells, according to new research.

In a paper published in Frontiers of Immunology, a team from the University of Reading looked at levels of different types of natural killer (NK) cells in older and younger people and whether the number, type and activity is linked to the effectiven­ess of the flu vaccine.

Among the key findings, the team discovered that older people with very low NK activity failed to respond to the flu vaccine at all.

Professor Parveen Yaqoob, Head of Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy at the University of Reading said: “Our paper shows that the natural killer cell population changes as we get older. We compared the NK cells in young and older people and found them to be different; there were fewer of the active NK cells in older people and they did not respond in the same way to a flu vaccinatio­n.

“To look at this further, we separated the older subjects into those who had very low NK activity and those who had higher NK activity. Those with low activity failed to respond to the vaccine at all, whereas in those who had higher NK activity, about 27% responded to the vaccine.

“It suggests that in older people, for whom protection against flu is critical, having low NK activity means that they are likely not to respond well to the flu vaccine.”

As part of the study, the team looked at whether a pre and probiotic mixture use could help those with low NK counts. However, although previous evidence suggests that probiotics could enhance the all-important NK cell activity, the University of Reading team’s tests showed no effect on the vaccine effectiven­ess.

Professor Yaqoob said: “We provided young and older subjects with a specially formulated pre and probiotic for eight weeks in total, with the flu vaccine being administer­ed halfway through.

“However, the treatment had no beneficial effect.

“What is unique about the study is the direct comparison of NK cell population­s and activity in young vs older subjects in conjunctio­n with a flu vaccinatio­n. It demonstrat­es that trying to increase the active NK cell population during ageing could improve the response to vaccinatio­n, and that individual­s who have somehow managed to preserve their NK activity have a better chance of responding to the flu vaccine.

“It’s important to note that we are not suggesting older people should avoid the flu shot. As a next step, we need to look into the ways in which people preserve NK activity, and immune function in general, throughout their lives in order to maintain the ability to respond to the flu vaccine for as long as possible as possible.”

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