Influenza, commonly known as flu, is a respiratory infection which can be distinguished from the common cold by the sudden onset of a headache, chills, cough followed by fever, muscle aches and fatigue. The incubation period is 24 to 72 hours generally lasting for a week to 10 days. For the current flu season, according to FluWatch, report October 14 – 20, 2018 (week 42), the influenza activity increased slightly this week.  Influenza A is the most common circulating virus in Canada and the currently circulating subtype is A(H1N1)pdm09. Here we present briefs from various news articles covering topics from the previous to the current influenza season and the possibility of a universal vaccine.

Flu activity high in Canada for the last winter

According to the data from Health Canada, of Feb.5, 2018 there were over 3,000 hospitalizations, 285 intensive care unit admissions and 130 deaths have been reported. Among the majority of the cases, the identified virus is H3N2 subtype of Influenza A, a severe strain causing illness particularly among the children and the elderly. Also, one of the contributing factors for the aggressiveness of the flu season is the low effectiveness of the vaccine for both Canada and the United States. Even though the virus strain appears to be rightly predicted, the dominant flu virus H3N2 is prone to mutation thus making the vaccine less effective. Canada’s chief public health officer also suggested that the component for the H3N2 may have mutated during the process of manufacturing, thus contributing to its less effectiveness. As the flu virus continues to change quickly, a new vaccine requires to be developed every year, however, it is possible to miss the most active virus of the flu season.

Particularly a tough flu season for children

An article in CBC news, posted Feb 16th 2018 shows that more children were ending up in the hospital because of flu-related illness. The report for the FluWatch also illustrates that the overall activity of flu was at its peak for the week. With several types of virus circulating, type B hits children hard. In Ontario, influenza A infections usually develop first in November and end in March when influenza B occurs. But for this season, both influenza A and B were circulating together. The father of a daughter who lost his 12 year old daughter said he regrets not being aware of the warning signs of a fatal flu infection. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a list of emergency warning signs for flu among children on its website;

“From my perspective, one of the frustrating things is that when you talk about meningitis, everybody sits up, everybody pays attention, people get vaccine in a heartbeat. But you’re actually more likely to die from influenza,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, medical director of infection and control at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

Having the flu vaccine can lower the effects of the flu infection like either having a mild illness or a hospital stay, said Anne Schuchat, acting Direction of CDC, especially for the high-risk people such as older individuals and children.

Flu shots for the current season 2018-2019

It is estimated that about 3,500 deaths occur annually in Canada due to flu. The complications of flu causing death include pneumonia, stroke and heart attack. Individuals at high risk of developing complications are infants under six months, pregnant women, elderly and those with a chronic health condition. One of the most effective ways of ensuring you don’t get the flu is by getting flu shot this year. As the flu season started in Canada, the clinics and pharmacies are preparing for the season’s flu shot. From October 15th, the province of Alberta had announced that flu shots will be available while people from other provinces can also expect to receive it at the same time or later. The Public Agency of Canada made a statement to the Global News that the best time to receive the vaccination is in October or in November.

“Canadians can get their flu shot from their primary healthcare provider, their local health department or at a flu shot clinic. Many pharmacists offer the flu shot as well,” a spokesperson previously told Global News.

Universal flu vaccine on the horizon?

As the last flu season had broken records with the number of hospitalization and death across North America, the scientists appear to get closer to the universal flu vaccine. It can protect people against different strains of the virus with the goal of administrating it once in an individual’s lifetime.

“What we’re currently doing with the influenza vaccine is based on old technology. It requires that the vaccine be reformulated every year. What we would like is to have a vaccine that provides more durable protection over a longer period of time,” Dr. Danuta Skowronski with the BC Centre for Disease Control said.

Studies indicate that the route to achieving a universal vaccine can be done by targeting the ‘stalk’ of the protein enveloping the flu virus. A study by University of Rochester Medical Center along with other researchers shows that the stalk can also change. However, David J. Topham, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at URMC said in a statement that it would be much more difficult to drive mutations in the stalk. Another study presents more hope for the universal flu vaccine where researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles had developed a vaccine with the intention of boosting the immune system of an individual so it can effectively combat various strains of flu virus.

There is also the opportunity for the development of a vaccine covering several strains of the virus that could be administered every few years instead of annually. And, to achieve this universal vaccine, countries need to recognize the need and prioritize the research of it. A few years ago, several universal flu vaccine strategies were in the pre-clinical stage that looked very promising have advanced to clinical trials. So it is feasible in the next decade or so, the universal vaccine could very well be a reality.