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Swine Flu News Continues to Develop

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

The novel influenza H1N1 virus continues to dominate the news so I am going to continue writing on several topics related to swine flu. Several of my patients have asked my why we don’t already have a vaccine. One also wondered why scientists don’t plan ahead for this type of event and have vaccines ready.

Vaccines and the technology surrounding their development, efficacy and safety is quite a complex science. Making a new vaccine is not like going into your kitchen to “whip up” a cake. I find it very interesting and also confusing that many people who were concerned about getting routine immunizations, which have long been studied and are known to be safe and efficacious, are now ready to run get a vaccine against swine flu, and the vaccine has not even been licensed. Go figure out human nature. We all want what we can’t have, kind of like the shortage of Tickle Me Elmo’s one Christmas, or the red Power Ranger when my boys were young.

Influenza vaccines are particularly difficult to create as flu viruses change each year. These viruses are smart and they keep you guessing as to how they will change and which ones will circulate each year. That is why a new vaccine must be produced for each flu season. Although the viruses are often similar each year, they are distinct, and both influenza A and B usually circulate every winter. While we are usually in full flu season in January, February and early March, scientists are already working on the vaccine that will be used for the following flu season. In other words they are working six to eight months ahead by following the epidemiology of the flu virus strains that circulate worldwide and are typically seasonal.

In the case of swine flu, this H1N1 virus is entirely new and that is why it is referred to as “novel”. Although it is an Influenza A virus, a similar virus has not been seen for over 30 years and the arrival of this virus came suddenly and at the end of the typical flu season. It has also been more contagious than seasonal influenza typically is. That may be because the majority of the population under the age of 50 or so has never been exposed to a similar virus and therefore has no immunity. Those questions are also being looked at and more information will be known as the swine flu continues to infect more people.

So at this point very smart people (vaccinologists) are in their labs trying to perfect a new vaccine against swine flu, and one which they can mass-produce in a very short time. More importantly, it must be both safe and effective!! Think of it like your husband calling you on a Friday morning and telling you that he is bringing 100 people to dinner at 7pm, and you haven’t even been to the store for a week. It is doable, but a daunting task.

That’s your daily dose, and be sure to check back as more information is released.

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