Development of the Flu Vaccine is Both Icky and Tricky

A woman walks by Amsterdam Family Health Clinic, located between W 94th and W 93rd streets on Amsterdam Avenue on Tuesday, February 5, 2018. Photo by Meira Gebel

We are having one of the worst flu seasons in decades. In New York City alone there’s been record-high hospitalizations and deaths. Doctors insists a flu shot will help even late in the season, but some people are questioning if it’s worth it. There have been nearly 9,500 hospitalization from the flu in New York state. 

 

“I’ve never gotten the flu vaccine in my life!” said Christian Cortez.

 

“Yes. About three months ago, my doctor advised me I should have it,” said Vincieta Proverbs.

 

“I always get it, and, because I am of an older age I don’t want to get the flu,” said Mary Lou Russell.

 

Dr. Joesph Lurio’s desk, with his nameplate and some hand sanitizer. It’s flu season, and hospitalizations are on the rise in New York City. Dr. Lurio has seen an influx of patients with the flu. Photo by Meira Gebel.

Outside of Amsterdam Family Health Clinic, there’s some doubt about the vaccine. But there’s no doubt for Dr. Joseph Lurio, who’s seen a large influx of patients with the flu. He insists patients get the shot, even though some ask: Does it matter?

 

“Some people will get the flu vaccine late in the season during an epidemic like this, and then a day or two later they will come down with the flu and they will associate that they got sick with getting the flu shot,” said Dr. Lurio.

 

That’s not true, he says. There are, however, lots of reasons that make the development of the flu vaccine problematic. It all goes back to just after World War II, when scientists began growing influenza strains in chicken eggs. And that system hasn’t changed much since.

 

By putting the virus in a chicken egg, it’s embryo breaks down the virus’s protective protein coat, killing it, creating a vaccine. This makes the vaccine limited by the market: one egg equals one flu shot.

 

“The present method isn’t sustainable. You just can’t make enough fast enough,” said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

 

“Making it in eggs is a slow process. And it’s not easy to change if you discover that you’re making a vaccine for the wrong strain for something that you thought was coming, but it turns out something else is coming,” he said.

 

The development of the flu vaccine is tricky, not only because the virus strains are able to mutate, but because the science boils down to prediction. Scientists monitor popular flu strains in the Southern Hemisphere to predict what flu might populate in the Northern Hemisphere.

 

“There is a global system of what are like flu weatherman, stationed around the planet,” said David Perlman, Chief of Infectious Diseases at Mount Sinai.

 

Dr. Perlman said viruses can mutate in two ways. Randomly, with little blips in their own DNA, and largely, by getting whole new bits of genetic material from another species, like pigs and birds, to create new strains.

 

“It has not yet appeared that there is a whole new different strain like the 1918 strain that went around the world. There is just more flu,” said Perlman.

 

Scientists don’t know really know why there is more flu. But just like weatherman, they can miss their mark, too — the bets scientists make while creating a new batch of flu vaccine every year, may more or less match the strains that actually circulate.

 

The flu season is expected to die down in April, but until then says Professor Morse —

 

“Take your vaccine!” said Morse.

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