When the Flu Vaccine Just Doesn't Work

Health officials reformulating flu vaccine for first time in more than 20 years.

February 19, 2009, 7:33 AM

Feb. 21, 2008— -- Federal health officials who met in Maryland today were already preparing for the next flu season, which starts in the fall.

For millions of Americans, what began as a mild flu season has developed into pure misery.

In just five weeks, the government's "influenza map" has exploded with widespread flu activity now reported in almost every state.

In Raleigh, N.C., almost half the students at one school are out sick. So many teachers had the flu, officials considered canceling classes. In Placenta, Calif., influenza is spreading through whole neighborhoods and families. In Augusta, Ga., one hospital was swamped with people complaining of fever, dry cough and body aches.

"It's a little bit unusual for so many states to be involved with influenza, seriously, simultaneously," Dr. William Schaffner at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center said. "It usually moves across the country in stages."

Not this year. The flu shots given across the country are, for many, proving to be a bust -- only effective against about 40 percent of the flu strains now in the United States.

Each year, health officials have to try to predict months in advance which of the thousands of strains circling the globe will be coming to America. They use a web of more than 80 laboratories -- a web of surveillance -- to identify which strains pose the biggest threat and then target them in a vaccine.

This is the first time they've completely reformulated the flu vaccine in more than 20 years.

"In the past couple of decades, we have been right most years. Not all years to be sure. This year, it was not right," said Dr. Robert Couch, a member of the Food and Drug Administration Flu Vaccine Advisory Committee.

Today, these health officials were trying to avoid making that same mistake and trying to come up with the right mix for the next batch of vaccine for the next flu season. Much of the focus is on that virulent strain from Australia that is currently making so many Americans sick.

It all boils down to an educated guess that so many are counting on to be right.

For a comprehensive listing of Medicine on the Cutting Edge reports with John McKenzie, click here.

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