World needs all-out efforts for a truly effective flu vaccine
February 07 2018 11:24 PM
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Every year in Qatar, the Ministry of Public Health calls on citizens and residents to take their seasonal flu shots in order to avoid any complications from influenza.
The latest one was issued in November 2017. The ministry said that the shots are available free of charges for citizens and residents alike at primary health centres.
A total of 80,000 people received their vaccinations since September, the ministry said. There were no side effects noted in those vaccinations as the ministry was committed to providing the best-in-class shots.
Studies conducted in Qatar and accredited by the World Health Organisation said that the flu virus is likely to be active during this winter all the way to April.
Meanwhile in America, this current flu season is turning out to be a rough one.
New York’s health department reported 2,221 new hospitalisations and 11,683 lab-confirmed cases for the week ending January. 27. Those are the highest weekly numbers since reporting began in 2004. Nationally, it could be the worst season since 2014-15, when 34mn Americans got the flu and about 56,000 died.
That’s bad, but not something like the influenza pandemic 100 years ago in which more than 50mn people died worldwide.
While that sounds like something that could happen only in the bad old days, epidemiologists warn that a lethal virus like the one that exploded in 1918 could recur, with airplane travel and modern population density enabling its spread. A century later, a dangerous flu strain could kill 200mn to 400mn people worldwide.
The lack of one has to do with two reasons _ the difficulty of targeting an ever-evolving set of viruses, and the structure of profit-based pharmacology.
Traditional vaccines like those for measles, mumps and rubella, or yellow fever work very well. They are over 97% effective. The worst thing about them for pharmaceutical manufacturers is that they work well for many, many years. There isn’t much profit in a drug people take once or twice. As a result, there’s little commercial incentive to invent a flu vaccine that works well against every possible strain of the disease.
A different way of funding the hunt is needed and it won’t be easy because right now, the drug companies are quite happy making $3bn a year on annual flu vaccines that usually aren’t that effective, as anyone who had the shot and still got ill can attest.
While flu viruses mutate, there are common traits all of them share. A long-lasting “universal flu vaccine” that provides immunity against against the core of all strains, including those that humans could catch from animals, is what’s needed. While the common traits are the hardest traits to target, scientists believe a universal vaccine is possible, and slow progress is being made by several academic teams.
Investments and organisational help from world governments and philanthropies, and financial rewards for developing the vaccine, is the best way to reach the goal. For now, however, there is little alternative to vaccination, frequent hand-washing and discreet sneezes. Stay home from work or school when you’re sick, get tested and take antiviral medications when diagnosed with the flu.
These are largely ineffective solutions to a potentially catastrophic problem. And if we wait for the next pandemic, or depend entirely on the profit motivations of the pharmaceutical industry for protection, the carnage could be unlike anything we’ve seen for a century.



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