Good news on the flu front, but shots still needed by some - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Good news on the flu front, but shots still needed by some

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Posted: Thursday, June 30, 2011 4:00 pm

You may be pleased to know that the flu season is over in the Northern Hemisphere, according to the World Health Organization.

That means unless you're spending time in certain tropical zones of Latin America or Africa, your odds of exposure to the bug are low until fall.

And there's more good news, perhaps, in that most public health experts expect that the same flu strains that afflicted millions of us last winter will be around again for the next season so manufacturers should have a relatively easy job making the serum.

The downside is that there's no free pass on getting the flu shot, whether or not you were vaccinated or think you had the flu last season. Flu experts considered the question carefully and concluded that the best anyone exposed last year might expect if they go unvaccinated this year and then get the same virus is that they might have a milder illness the second time around.

For most people, and especially the elderly, the very young and anyone else with a weak immune system, the flu-fighting cells just can't manage to stay on high alert in sufficient numbers to ward off illness for much longer than six to eight months.

Some of us may be genetically predisposed to respond better or not so much to the flu vaccine, according to findings published this spring by researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Dr. John Belmont and colleagues studied gene activity and immune response in 92 men aged 18 to 40 who received a standard flu shot containing three strains of virus. The findings were published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Positive response to the vaccine was measured in two ways -- genes that prompt increased production of an anti-viral compound called interferon and those that regulate a protein called interleukin that in turn governs how well antibodies against a specific virus are produced.

In all, the scientists found that the signature of 484 genes seemed to best predict how an individual would respond to the flu vaccine. Their hope is that this information may eventually help doctors set different shot doses and use vaccine augmenters to improve the uptake of vaccines for patients whose immune systems don't readily react.

Among the top priorities for flu vaccination are women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant during flu season, both to avoid complications if mom gets sick when her immune system is stepped down to protect the baby, and because newborns themselves are at high risk and can't be vaccinated.

One study published in June by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center looked at flu illness and vaccination data from seven seasons and found that infants whose moms got a flu shot while pregnant were 50 percent less likely to be hospitalized with the flu than infants born to moms who were not vaccinated. The work appeared in the June issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

"We know that mothers pass antibodies through the placenta to the baby," said Dr. Katherine Poehling, an associate professor of pediatrics who led the study. "This study showed us that receiving the influenza vaccine during pregnancy not only protects the mother, but also protects the baby in the early months of life."

A second study done by researchers at Emory University and published in May found a link between flu vaccination among mothers and reduced risk for premature birth of their infants during flu season.

After tracking more than 4,100 mother-infant pairs over a two year period, researchers found that babies born during flu season (October-May) and whose moms got a flu shot were about 60 percent less likely to be born prematurely than were infants of unvaccinated moms.

The researchers stressed that their findings don't prove the shots directly prevent prematurity or that getting the flu contributes to early birth, but that more research should be done. Their work appears in the May 31 issue of the journal PLOS Medicine.

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