Doctors examine difficulty in fighting the flu

Doctors examine difficulty in fighting the flu
We're in the midst of a severe flu season with widespread cases in 49 states (Source: WSFA 12 News File Video)

WSFA/NBC - We're in the midst of a severe flu season with widespread cases in 49 states.

Dr. Frank McGeorge takes us inside the epidemic with a closer look at why it's so difficult to fight the flu and what it could mean for the future. Inside the "flu lab" at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, samples from local patients are coming in at a rapid pace.

"We're seeing mainly an H3N2 seeing lots every day," said Dr. Arnold Monto with the University of Michigan said.

Monto said the predominance of H3N2 this year is partially to blame for the severe season.

"This particular subtype, unfortunately, it both causes the most severe disease in terms of complications and it also is the one that the vaccine doesn't work as well as the other subtypes," Monto said. "the reason it happens is that the vaccine virus is grown in eggs. When you put the vaccine virus into eggs there are mutations in the virus and it gets to be less similar to the virus that's circulating in people."

While researchers are working on *other* ways to grow the vaccine virus, for example, in insect cells or plants Monto thinks many smaller changes can also lead to a more effective vaccine.

"We really need to focus on the short term as well as the long-term and I think that's happening," Monto said.

One example of that, the high dose flu shot currently approved for seniors. It's about 20 percent more efficient and that includes higher protection against that more dangerous H3N2 strain.

Another advancement- antiviral medications.

"We do have antivirals that are underused when you do get the flu and this is whether you are vaccinated or not," according to Monto

In about a month, they'll have preliminary data on how effective this year's vaccine has been but Monto can already say, it's been a strange flu season.

"A lot of people are getting sick that haven't got flu in a long time," Monto said.

While this flu season is still going strong, Monto says the FDA will be meeting on March 1 to formalize the strain selection for next year's flu vaccine.

That timing gives you an idea of why it's so challenging to create a vaccine for this moving target.

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