Annual battle against flu gets shot in the arm

Scientists have successfully tested a new immune-boosting jab against all flu viruses. But will sceptics still refuse vaccination?

In 429 BC the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides noticed that those who survived a smallpox outbreak in Athens didn't become re-infected. The disease was finally eradicated after a two and a half thousand-year story of scientific advances that made the world population immune.

First Chinese doctors during the middle ages, then Turkish medics, tried deliberately infecting their people with smallpox scabs – sometimes putting powdered scabs up the nose or pushing them under cut skin. Patients still became ill, but fewer died and the practice became widespread in the 17th century.

In 1796 Scottish doctor Edward Jenner invented the first modern vaccine, leading to a revolution in public health and the eventual end of smallpox, once the most infectious disease in Europe.

This week scientists at Oxford University have provided hope in our own era's battle against viruses: influenza could be forced into retreat by a new vaccine.

Currently, the four-month delay in producing a vaccine against each winter's new flu strain causes many to get sick and some to die before it is ready.

But the new method has been hailed as a breakthrough because it prompts the body to produce a stronger immune response, rather than stimulating antibodies to a specific flu strain. So it could be used to protect against all types of flu.

More time and more tests will confirm its usefulness, but this jab could become routine. To defeat a disease, however, a vaccine requires that nearly all the population get immunised. The few that refuse endanger the rest.

A 1998 research article falsely linking the childhood Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine to bowel cancer and autism – now found to be not only wrong but a deliberate fraud – caused terrified parents to refuse the jab. Because only 70 per cent of children were then getting vaccinated, children too young for the injection were left vulnerable and cases soared.

Opt in or opt out?
'After clean water, immunisation is the most effective public
health intervention in the world' says the UK's health protection agency. In some places – Australia, Germany and certain US states – it is compulsory to have your infant immunised.

Protests and non-cooperation have been common throughout the history of immunisation. Some worry about possible side effects, scared off by what they have read or heard. Others object to being told what to do or have a general distrust of medicine.

But we need a system to ensure the maximum number get their shots to make sure the vaccines protect us as well as possible.

You Decide

  1. Some doctors want childhood immunisations such as MMR to be compulsory. Do you agree?
  2. In 2009 the government was accused of scaring the population about swine flu. This year ministers and the NHS are criticised for not doing enough on seasonal flu. Are our reactions to media stories about our health rational?

Activities

  1. Produce a storyboard or script for a two-minute public health advertisement about the new immune-boosting flu jab.
  2. Research what level of the population need to be vaccinated to provide protection for all (so-called 'herd immunity') and make a presentation about infection risks. The links here should help.

Some People Say...

“Diseases are useful to reduce the population.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How did the Oxford scientists test this new vaccine?
Dr Sarah Gilbert infected 22 healthy volunteers with a known flu virus. Half had been injected with her new vaccine, and half were left unprotected. The vaccinated group became less ill.
Did they just sneeze less?
Well, tests showed they had immune T-cells 'activated, primed and ready to kill.' But the scientists also weighed their used tissues to confirm they were producing less mucus, and monitored their coughs, sore throats and other symptoms.
So will this vaccine become standard?
It's very early days. After further tests on more people, the vaccine could be licensed for use in several years time; possibly alongside the traditional antibody-producing annual flu jabs.
Flu isn't serious though.
It can be. Up to 500,000 people die of the virus every year worldwide, according to the WHO.

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