Researchers discuss influenza vaccine

Anywhere from 3,000 to about 50,000 people in the United States could die from the flu in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

The flu presents symptoms similar to a cold but is far more severe, said Nila Dharan, an assistant professor of Medicine in the New Jersey Medical School. A fever, sore throat and cough are the primary symptoms, but patients may also feel muscle aches and fatigue. 

Some people may even experience nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, she said.

The flu is not nearly as mild as people believe, said David Cennimo, another assistant professor in the New Jersey Medical School. Patients may be hospitalized and sent to intensive care units due to the disease. 

“In one case I remember from my medical training, the patient developed a severe secondary infection and died,” he said in an interview with Rutgers Today. 

Statistically, the flu is worse than many other diseases, especially Ebola, he said. Far more people will get the flu than Ebola.

Sarah Maas, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said many people die from the flu every year. The very young, elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at particular risk of death.

“The flu is a much bigger threat to the average person than Ebola,” Maas said. “The only way to catch Ebola is to come in contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.” 

The flu, like many other respiratory viruses, is far easier to get, Dharan said. This disease can cause outbreaks in patients’ homes or in medical facilities like nursing homes and hospitals. 

Different types of influenza viruses are consistently evolving, requiring a new vaccine to be made every year, she said. The World Health Organization collects data on which strains are appearing where and when. 

The CDC creates new vaccines for the U.S. each year based on samples received from infected patients, she said. The most prevalent strains are grown in laboratory conditions.

Up to three or four strains may appear in a single vaccine to provide maximum protection, she said. 

Flu vaccines contain “dead” viruses, Cennimo said. The viruses present in those vaccines cannot replicate and therefore cannot cause symptoms in a person.

The vaccine may take up to two weeks to take effect, during which a separate infection might cause the disease, he said. The incubation period for an active virus is much shorter — a few days.

People should get vaccinated as early as possible to prevent this, he said.

Nasal vaccines are different from the flu shot in that they have a live but mutated virus, he said. This type of vaccine does not cause the illness either but is only recommended for those with strong immune systems. 

“Theoretically, giving [a] live virus to immunocompromised people presents a higher risk for them,” he said.

While some people might be allergic to a vaccine, incidents of this are extremely rare, he said.

Other ways to prevent the spread of the flu include maintaining good hygiene, she said. It is a good idea to avoid infected people and for those who are infected to stay home and recuperate.

Being vaccinated against the flu has secondary benefits, Cennimo said. People who are more likely to get the flu are protected when everyone around them is vaccinated. 

Some people are at risk due to compromised immune systems, he said. Cancer patients and other people with medical conditions may have these compromised systems. 

“Nobody wants to get the flu,” Cennimo said. “Nobody wants to miss a week of work and feel miserable.”

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