Stories about: flu vaccine

Viral discussion: Epidemics experts sound off on the future of infection control

Image of flu virus, which experts think will eventually lead to future epidemics
Is the next flu pandemic around the corner?

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped below 40 years old. Today, public health and medical professionals need to be actively preparing for the next great pandemic, according to leaders of the Massachusetts Medical Society, The New England Journal of Medicine and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who delivered the keynote address at a Boston-based meeting on April 27 called Epidemics Going Viral: Innovation vs. Nature. Here’s recap of what we heard from various panelists.

The five key drivers of epidemics are population growth/urbanization, travel, animals, environmental/climate changes and conflicts/natural disasters, according to Harvey Fineberg, MD, PhD, President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and former president of the Institute of Medicine. When it comes to predicting and preventing the next epidemic, Fineberg believes that data from a social media platform like Twitter isn’t going to help identify the next big outbreak.

But John Brownstein, PhD, an epidemiologist and Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, disagreed with that idea.

“I believe it’s possible for Twitter to find the next microbe,” Brownstein said. “This information comes in real time and at global scale.” Attendees who were live tweeting with the hashtag #epidemicsgoviral were quick to highlight this difference of opinion.

Uber flu shot, “a cool millennial thing to do”

Anne Schuchat, MD, deputy director of the Centers of Disease Control, busted the myth that non-vaccination rates are rising. She explained that media stories about anti-vaccination supporters can make it seem as though vaccination rates are falling when they actually aren’t.

“Less than one percent of kids aren’t vaccinated in the U.S.,” Schuchat said.

But some vaccinations, like the annual flu shot, still have big gaps to close. Brownstein described how a partnership with Uber — dispatching flu vaccines and nurses to people’s homes — was able to influence people to get their first-ever flu shot.

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Does vaccinating preschoolers for the flu make a difference? A natural experiment says, “Yes!”

Preschoolers are often the first to catch the flu every year. Vaccinating children in this age group may help the whole family avoid the flu. (Luke & Courtney Barrett/Flickr)

When anyone in my house gets a cold or other bug, often we all look at my three-year old son, the one in preschool, and ask, “What did you bring home?” While it may seem unfair, our reaction reflects the conventional wisdom: That children of preschool age are often the vector for the colds, flu, sniffles, coughs, stomach bugs, etc., that make their way through the family every year.

Science does bear this out, especially with regards to the flu. A 2005 study by Children’s Hospital Boston researchers strongly suggested that otherwise healthy 3 and 4 year olds were prime drivers of flu epidemics, often displaying flu-like symptoms as early as late September.

Acknowledging preschoolers’ increased risk of getting sick from the flu, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) – the national body that sets vaccination policies in the U.S. – updated its influenza vaccine recommendations in 2006 to include vaccination of children between ages 2 and 4. Now, John Brownstein, who leads the Computational Epidemiology Group in the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP) and took part in the 2005 study, demonstrates that the policy change has had quite an effect.

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