What’s new with the Flu

Flu season is just beginning to rear its ugly head and clinics are arming themselves with arsenals of vaccines. 

Influenza’s annual assault falls in October and can last through early spring, and it’s about this time people often question, what the flu is and if the vaccine is even worth it.

The influenza virus infects healthy cells, where it replicates and spreads to other cells. The rapid replication leaves our bodies fighting off a formidable infection and we suffer for it. 

“Most of the influenza strains that exist effect birds,” said Tara Smith, a professor at Kent State’s School of Public Health. “The good news is most of those don’t affect humans.”

The bad news is the influenza strains that do affect humans totally suck. At best an infected person can expect a nasty fever and debilitating fatigue; more extreme cases can lead to respiratory failure.  

“Within humans right now there are a couple of different types of influenza viruses,” Smith said. “The one we worry about the most is Influenza A. That’s the one that causes the most deaths in humans.”

H1N1 and H3N2 are the most common subtypes of Influenza strain A that are combated every flu season. Smith said that the H and N correspond to surface proteins of the virus that allow the virus to enter and exit the host cells.  

What makes influenza difficult to manage is its incredible capacity to mutate and replicate so quickly.

“Most years we have mild mutations,” Smith said. “The mutations are still within H1N1 and H3N2 but it changes enough every year that your immune system doesn’t recognize it.” 

This means that sometimes flu vaccines that are synthesized in February, six months before the flu season hits in October, can’t provide protection from a modified version of the flu that has changed before or during the flu season.

Influenza is a single stranded RNA virus and does not have a correction mechanism to repair mutations within its genetic material. 

“Any mutation is going to be kept in the virus,” Smith said. “It mutates really rapidly and that’s why we need to get the vaccine every year.”

Smith explained that deadly pandemics, such as the Swine Flu in 2009 and the 1918 Spanish Flu, can happen when strains recombine and create an entirely new strain that our immune systems have never been exposed to. 

“These can be really bad,” Smith said. “You have a completely new protein that your body hasn’t seen before and that gives the flu virus a really big advantage and lets the virus spread quickly which is when we see pandemics.” 

Smith said the vaccine is predicted by studying other nation’s flu seasons, looking at what seasonal strains were circulating and any changes or new viruses that emerged during the season. 

Smith explained the flu vaccine is a killed vaccine, meaning the vaccines contain killed flu virus particles that do not have the ability to replicate or cause disease. In its altered state, the virus proteins are introduced to the immune system prompting antibodies to recognize and respond to the flu virus proteins, or antigens. 

“You’re giving your body the antigens your immune system recognizes but you’re not giving a virus that can replicate in your body and make you sick,” Smith said. “You’re, in a way, tricking your body and protecting yourself by priming your immune system to fight off the virus.”

Kent’s own Deweese Health Center is stocked and ready for the upcoming flu season.

Deweese’s senior physician Dr. Jennifer D’Abreau is armed with 2,000 doses of flu vaccine and hopes to use them all this year. 

“Students are a little more at risk due to sharing computers, table tops and door knobs and handles,” D’Abreau said. “Good practices are to wash hands before and after all meals and using the bathroom, and because this is airborne sneeze into your arms.” 

D’Abreau said universities can be more vulnerable to the spread of the flu due to their large and transient population.  

“Students are often carrying germs from outside into this area,” D’Abreau said. “The student teachers are bringing illness from the elementary schools, the nursing students are bringing illness from hospitals back to campus and commuter students are bringing illness from home.”

Dr. D’Abreau urges students to be mindful of healthy sleeping and eating habits as these can affect one’s ability to fight off infection. Taking multivitamins can be another cost efficient method of boosting general health. 

On average Deweese has 200 positive cases of influenza within a season. However, this number is not an accurate picture of the total number of cases on campus as some students may seek medical treatment off campus. They haven’t had a confirmed case yet this year, according to D’Abreau. 

The Deweese Health Center offers a flu vaccine walk in clinic on Tuesdays from 3-5 p.m. There are also vaccine clinics held throughout the semester. The self-paid price for the vaccine is $30. More information can be found on the University Health Services website.

Contact Colleen Carroll at [email protected]