Despite health officials recommending the elderly be vaccinated ahead of each winter, the flu jab is not always effective. That is according to Public Health England (PHE), which has stated state the jab helped protect youngsters last winter, but not those over the age of 65.
Every year, the three most common strains of flu are selected by the World Health Organization (WHO) to go into the injection. This is supposed to make it as effective as possible and usually helps to protect 50 per cent of flu cases.
Critically, the H3 strain of flu, which was prevalent last year, was not included in the mix, thus failing to protect those most susceptible to it. This demographic is mainly the elderly, meaning the at-risk over-65s group did not receive immunity to the strain.
An official from PHE told the BBC: “As people age, their immune systems are often weaker and therefore their bodies may not respond as well to a vaccine as younger people's bodies.”
Even though last year’s vaccine had limited success among the elderly, experts still recommend they get the flu jab in preparation for this winter. Even a small boost to the immune response could help older people to recover from flu.
In a response to the news that the vaccine was not effective on the over-65s, PHE is looking at ways to improve its success rate. This could include introducing a high-dose injection that makes the body more responsive to receiving the vaccine as the patient ages.
Richard Pebody, head of flu surveillance at PHE, said: “We're looking at what happened and better options to protect the elderly.”
Should the high-dose vaccine be developed, it could become available to elderly people as soon as two winters from now. In the meantime, other potential treatments, such as a cancer tumour fighting drug that has been found to restore flu infected cells, could be in the pipeline.
Another breakthrough that has been made in the area of flu is a new blood test. Requiring just a single drop of the patient’s blood, it detects an early warning signal in the body that leads to the immune system kicking in and fighting the infection.
Scientists at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research in Australia have developed the High-risk Influenza Screen Test (HIST) as a way to determine when urgent care is required. That is because secondary infections, such as pneumonia, which are more prevalent when a patient has flu, can end up being deadly.
The HIST takes just a few hours to return the results from a small blood sample and has been found to be 91 per cent accurate. Not only could the test save lives, but it could also assuage the worries of those with elderly relatives that could be susceptible to infections.