Stories tagged influenza


Do you have a fever and headache? Is your nose running, with a sore throat and dry cough? Are you tired with muscle aches? You might have influenza or “the flu” as we commonly call it. You may have gotten vaccinated and you still got a bad case of the flu. This is one of those influenza seasons where the experts didn’t quite get it right.

So what happened?
Influenza virus is constantly changing and evolving and each year public health experts get together several months in advance (the FDA will make their recommendation for next year’s vaccine on February 21, 2008) of the flu season to choose three strains of influenza to put in the vaccine, H1N1 strain, H3N2 strain and a B virus strain. It is part science and part art. For more information on this process try your hand at predicting the flu using a program developed as part of the Disease Detective exhibition currently at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

According to Dr. Joe Bresee, the Branch Chief, in the branch of Epidemiology and Prevention of the CDC’s Influenza Division, the H1N1 strain in the vaccine this year is a good match to the circulating strain but the H3N2 type strain and the B strain are not ideal matches. So protection is probably lower than expected in a season when vaccine strains and circulating strains are well matched. Usually, the guesswork is pretty good: Bresee has said, the vaccines have been a good match in 16 of the last 19 flu seasons.

Why are people so sick this year?
It just so happens – and we don’t know why – that H3N2 strains of influenza virus are more severe. For this season the number of people infected with H3N2 influenza is on the rise. The past two years the H1N1 strain predominated and so those infected were not as sick.

What are all these H’s and N’s?
Influenza is categorized as influenza A type viruses and influenza B type viruses. The A viruses are further broken down and characterized by the proteins found on the surface of the virus. These proteins are called hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). The proteins change as the influenza virus evolves so numbers are used to designate the different types of H and N proteins.

Remember vaccination is still your best defense against influenza. The experts have been right 16 of the past 19 seasons and as Dr. Bresee reports…

But even in those years where the vaccine matches less well against the circulating strains, we know that getting vaccinated will tend to make the illnesses milder, lessen the chances a person has a very severe outcome.


This won't hurt, really: The FDA recently okayed even younger kids, those ages 2 to 4, to be eliglble for receiving their annual flu shot in a new nasal mist form.
This won't hurt, really: The FDA recently okayed even younger kids, those ages 2 to 4, to be eliglble for receiving their annual flu shot in a new nasal mist form.
If you’re young and squeamish about shots, there’s good news for you this year on the flu shot front.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has okayed the use of a flu shot nasal spray product – FluMist – for treating kids ages 2 to 4. The product has been on the market for a few years for people ages 5-49 who are in good health and not pregnant.

Obviously, this is pretty significant news since the biggest criers during the process of receiving a flu shot are between the ages of 2 to 4. In recent testing, those receiving the nasal flu shot had a 92-percent reduction in the rate of catching the flu than those who didn’t.

Furthermore, the nasal spray will work for people who have minor illnesses. But, obviously, those suffering conditions with nasal congestion might not get the full benefits of the nasal spray.

Here are the side effects to watch out for after application on children: runny nose, headache, wheezing, vomiting muscle aches and fever. For adults, the side effects include: runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough.

The calendar is quickly turning to the best time to get your flu shot as a nasal blast or a vaccine. October and November are the best times of the year. The Center for Disease Control suggests that children receiving a flu shot for the first time receive a nasal application in October. They’ll also need a second dose one month later.

If you’ve had flu shots in the past, it’s okay to receive your flu dosage this year nasally if you meet other qualifying criteria.

Of course, most people don’t bother to be vaccinated against the flu most years. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that a record amount of doses – 130 million – are available this year, but as past practices show, only a fraction of them will be used.

Only about one in five babies who should receive a flu shot get one, the report said, and nationwide last year, about 36,000 people died from health complications from getting the flu.


Indonesia—with the world's highest death toll from H5N1 avian influenza—briefly stopped providing samples to the World Health Organization (WHO), saying only organizations that agreed not to use the samples for commercial purposes would have access. Now the Indonesian government has struck a new deal to share samples under a plan that would guarantee access to any resulting vaccines.

H5N1 avian influenza viruses: This is a colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (in gold). (Courtesy J. Katz Goldsmith and S. Zaki, CDC)
H5N1 avian influenza viruses: This is a colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (in gold). (Courtesy J. Katz Goldsmith and S. Zaki, CDC)

The Reuters article says,

"Indonesia has said it was unfair for foreign drug firms to use samples, design vaccines, patent them and sell the product back to the country. ...

Menno de Jong of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City said sharing viruses and clinical data was vital to improve diagnostics, clinical care and vaccine development, but sharing vaccines was vital too.

'I think the point is well taken from the Indonesia experience that there should be some guarantees for countries affected by H5N1 that they will also share in the vaccines produced,' he said."

Biotech and pharmaceutical companies spend BIG money to produce tests, treatments, and vaccines for a huge range of conditions, from the life-threatening to the merely inconvenient or uncomfortable. And they’re understandably concerned about protecting their investments.

But afflicted patients are usually not compensated for the samples that make these medical miracles possible. (For a good discussion of the problem, read this editorial from the New York Times).

Check out Bryan’s blog entry ((“Patenting human genes”), and then vote in our poll.

Tell us what you think: Does Indonesia’s insistence that compensation (in the form of access to resulting vaccines) for H5N1 avian influenza samples make you feel safer/better?

A recent study in Poland showed that a flu shot can significantly reduce the risk of death for people with coronary artery disease. Dr. Arnold Monto, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said,

"We know that people die of flu who have underlying cardiopulmonary disease. It's only logical that if you are able to prevent flu with vaccine, you can prevent these deaths."


The CDC has more than 100 million doses of this year's flu vaccine available--enough so that anyone who wants one can get one. (Doctors and clinics will start receiving the vaccine next month.)

Last year 86 million doses were available, but 4.8 million went unused. Yet 200 million Americans are either considered high risk themselves or have close contact with someone at high risk and should consider getting the shot.

People on the CDC's priority list include:

  • Health care providers,
  • Children between 6 months and 5 years old,
  • People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease,
  • And people older than 50.

It's best to get vaccinated in October or November so there's time for immunity to develop before the flu season hits. But numbers of influenza cases usually peak in February, so even a late shot offers some protection.

Every year somewhere between 5 and 20% of the US population catches influenza. 200,000 of them need hospital care, and 36,000 die.

So...will you be getting a flu shot this year? Vote in our poll, and tell us why or why not.


A University of Iowa researcher, Dr. James Gill, has just shown that people can catch a non-threatening kind of bird flu (NOT the H5N1 strain) from wild birds.

Duck hunter's dog: (Photo by Blaine Hansel)

Gill tested blood from 39 duck hunters for antibodies that would prove infection by any of a dozen kinds of bird-based influenza. Several hunters had antibodies to H1, H2, and H3 strains, which have adapted to humans and are now routinely seen in people. But one hunter tested positive for H11N9, which is not seen in humans.

The hunter was a healthy, 39-year-old man who'd been hunting since he was 8 and kills or handles hundreds of birds a year. He'd never shown any symptoms of illness.

Also, Gill found H11N9 antibodies in the blood of two Iowa Department of Natural Resources workers. Both had been banding ducks for years.

None of the infected men had any history of working with domesticated birds--an established source of bird flu transmission to humans. Instead, these cases appear to be the first documented of humans getting viruses from wild birds.


It's in the news. People are dying from a relative of the 1918 Influenza virus half a world away, and scientists fear it may be the next pandemic. Sounds like science fiction, or the latest box-office smash, right? Unfortunately, it's real, and is happening right now.

chickens: (Photo courtesy Laura Hadden)
chickens: (Photo courtesy Laura Hadden)

In Southeast Asia, a virus known as avian influenza or avian flu has the potential to spread and kill humans with terrifying speed. Avian flu is also known as H5N1 for the proteins that bind, infect, and destroy its host cell to thrive. Chickens can die within hours of exposure, swollen and hemorrhaging, but it is just as lethal to mammals from lab mice to tigers. The virus has decimated bird flocks in 11 countries mostly in Asia, and has killed 62 people (half the known cases) to date, with highest fatalities occurring in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. So far, nearly all people infected contracted the sickness directly from infected poultry and at this point there is no confirmed evidence of efficient human-to-human transmission. However, health authorities fear that the H5N1 strain will likely mutate into a pathogen easily passed between humans if it continues to persist in the environment. If that happens, and authorities believe it's only a matter of time, the world could face a catastrophic pandemic.

Many health organizations and governments are stockpiling a drug (Tamiflu) to protect against this potential pandemic, but scientists are reporting that a strain of H5N1 avian flu virus is showing resistance to the antiviral drug. Scientists are working to avoid this disaster by detecting changes in the evolving H5N1 virus. As a first step, scientists have rebuilt the 1918 flu-a disease that killed as many as 50 million people-from pieces of genetic material retrieved from the lungs of people who died 87 years ago. Gene-swapping experiments are starting to give scientists some clues in the lab. When small substitutions were made, the reconstructed virus could no longer replicate in the lungs of mice, kill animals, or attach itself to human lung cells.

So far H5N1 has not yet learned the trick of racing from person to person like the ordinary flu and maybe never will. Nevertheless, experts fear that the risk could materialize and are urging the world to prepare for the worst.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Program

NPR Health and Science Report


What are your thoughts about the reconstruction of the 1918 flu virus?

  • Richard H. Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, has serious concerns and believes "there is a risk verging on inevitability, of accidental release of the virus; there is also a risk of deliberate release of the virus."
  • Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (which helped pay for the reconstruction work), says that the board "voted unanimously that the benefits outweighed the risk that it would be used in a nefarious manner."

What do YOU think?