Humanity has been battling the flu for generations. Concocting a vaccine for it is particularly difficult because the virus is continually changing. While immunologists can only dream of a universal flu vaccine, there might be a way to get pretty close.
A tricky bug
Unlike most illnesses, the flu is a tricky one to vaccinate for because it’s never quite the same. Every year, its genetic makeup changes slightly. When it comes to making a vaccine, the best scientists can do is guess. What really throws our bodies for a loop is when the virus undergoes something called antigenic shift.
When that happens, a large portion of the virus changes, and any immunity our bodies might have built up to the “old model” doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s how you end up with an outbreak like the H1N1 pandemic.
When scientists create a flu vaccine, they typically take a sample of whatever strain was most prevalent the previous year. The success rate of the seasonal flu vaccine can be anywhere from 20% to 60% effective because of the virus’ ability to mutate.
As an adult, you’re still better off getting the vaccine than not, but as a child, being vaccinated for the flu could be critical. Recent studies have shown that a child’s first flu vaccine has a way of “supercharging” their immune system against similar strains of the virus.
The wonder vaccine
While us adults are stuck with the gamble of a seasonal vaccine, scientists are beginning to study what would happen if children were exposed to a variety of inert flu viruses from the start. Flu vaccines contain no live viruses, so the risk of infection would be negligible.
If their immune systems had the opportunity to create a strong response to several common strains at a young age, it might grant them increased resistance to a broader array of mutations as adults. The experiment would be long and challenging to study, but it could bring us a step closer to wiping out this annual plague.