In a year with flu-related headlines being shown more regularly on the national news, people are understandably worried about influenza. In Louisa County, people are no different, wondering what is the best way to protect their loved ones from the potentially deadly virus.
Dr. Thomas Braciale, M.D., Ph.D., director emeritus at the Carter Immunology Center at the University of Virginia, is a professor of pathology and spends his time studying the immune response to viral infection, or more generally he studies the flu.
“Think of the flu as having a jacket around it,” he said. “Influenza has this jacket around it that enables it to move. And think of a vaccine producing antibodies that act like a blanket, so you’re throwing a blanket over these cells so they cannot spread.”
While drugs like Tamiflu can treat the flu by preventing a certain enzyme from being reproduced, limiting the amount of time that people experience flu-like symptoms, the best treatment of the flu at this point remains the same as it has been for years: prevention. That means both inoculation and limiting contact with people who are already sick.
“The Thomas Jefferson Health District is continuing to promote healthy behaviors to prevent the spread of flu and colds,” Kathryn Goodman, with the Virginia Department of Health, said in an email. “The Virginia Department of Health conducts seasonal influenza surveillance, communicates the importance of vaccination and other key prevention strategies, and provides guidance and information to health care communities as needed.”
The biggest struggle on the part of scientists, however, is knowing how to make the vaccine so that we are prepared for the correct strains of flu.
“Every year we have to determine what kind of ‘jacket’ the flu is going to wear so we can program our vaccine to recognize it and throw a blanket over it so it can’t travel, so to speak,” Braciale said.
Braciale said that in spite of the news reports and the sensationalism, the claim that our current flu season is unprecedented is not what he is seeing.
“The statistics don’t really bear that out,” he said. “What we’re seeing is a vaccine that is not as effective as we would like. Typically, in a healthy adult, you’d want to see a vaccine that is 70-80 percent effective, and this year, we’ve seen one that is sometimes less than 50 percent effective. Sometimes a lot less than 50 percent.”
Unfortunately, the reduction in effectiveness simply comes down to a guessing game. Within the two major types of Influenza, A and B, there are several sub-types and lineages, such as H1N1 and H3N2, which are the two major sub-types of Influenza A currently in circulation. Knowing which strains to include in the vaccine largely comes down to surveillance and luck. Unfortunately, Braciale said, sometimes scientists get it wrong.
“Sometimes we miss,” he said. “But even when we do, vaccination and good hygiene is still the best prevention. It prevents hospitalizations and saves lives, even at partial efficiency.”
Hands down, Goodwin said the best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated.