A step forward for flu vaccines

There’s some added protection coming your way this flu season. New vaccines will be available that guard against four strains of the flu – an improvement over previous vaccines that covered only three strains.

Thomas Sandora, MD, MPH, of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital, explains that, with the flu, “there’s influenza A and influenza B, and two strains of A and B circulate at any given time.” In years past, he says, “we had a trivalent vaccine that covered both strains of A but only one strain of B.” But this year, Sandora reports, “a new quadrivalent vaccine has been manufactured, a vaccine that covers two strains of A and two strains of B.”

This new and improved vaccine is the result of ongoing research and development efforts that continue year after year. “Flu experts look at what’s circulating in the northern and southern hemispheres at different times of year, and they use this information to make recommendations for vaccines,” he explains. In advance of each flu season, vaccines are created in accordance with these recommendations and then distributed to doctors, hospitals and clinics.

“The new vaccine already is being shipped and delivered,” Sandora says. Early in the season, supplies may be limited, he cautions, “but later in the season, we should have enough.”

What should you do if the new quadrivalent vaccine isn’t yet available in your area? “Don’t wait,” Sandora advises. “You want to be vaccinated as early as possible, because we don’t know when flu season is going to start. Also, it takes about two weeks to become immune after you receive your shot,” he explains.

Also, he says, “it’s more important to receive any vaccine instead of one over the other. You want to receive your vaccine before the flu season begins, so whatever your pediatrician or vaccine clinic has, just get it.”

Still, Sandora says that fighting the flu is an “imperfect science,” and he calls on parents to temper their expectations about the new vaccine.

The quadrivalent approach is “a step forward, but I wouldn’t call it a big step,” he says. “We need to see how much of an impact this extra strain will provide because flu vaccines are only about 60 percent effective to begin with.” Sandora says that, at the end of the flu season, organizations like the Centers for Disease control will evaluate the data and determine how much of an impact–if any–the new vaccine had.

Time will tell how effective the new vaccine will be, and a “universal” vaccine that effectively covers every flu, every season has yet to be developed. Still, Sandora states that being vaccinated is the best available way to protect yourself from the flu. He recommends that parents and children get a flu shot as early as possible and continue to practice the other tried and true methods of fighting influenza:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Sneeze into your elbow or into a tissue to prevent the spread of disease.

Do you know where the nearest flu shot is available for you and your family? Do you have questions about the type of vaccine they offer? Click the link to use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder, developed by Boston Children’s HealthMap team, for all your influenza vaccination needs.

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