The elderly are advised to get inoculated against flu each winter, but in recent years the injection has been relatively ineffective on this vulnerable demographic. Now, the NHS is trialling a new jab that is thought to protect against the deadliest strains.
Usually, the flu jab is manufactured in the spring using strains of the virus that experts consider will be the most common in the following winter. The problem with this approach is that the intervening eight months offers an opportunity for these strains to mutate and therefore the injection becomes less effective.
Now, scientists at Oxford University have developed a new inoculation to protect against all Influenza A strains, which are the most dangerous forms of the virus. It is to be trialled by the NHS for the first time on a group of test subjects over the age of 65.
Another benefit of the jab – should it prove effective – is that it is only required once every five years as opposed to annually. This could mean fewer health professionals would be required to administer it, as well as less inconvenience for the patients.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, an expert in vaccinology at Oxford University said: “Every year, flu in older adults causes serious illness and sometimes death. We want to improve the situation, but in order to do that we need volunteers to help us test a new vaccine. If you are invited to take part, please consider doing so. The flu vaccine efficacy isn’t very good and we need to improve it.”
A useful analogy for flu is a pin cushion, as this is what the virus resembles when examined under a microscope. Previous vaccines have only targeted the pins and as they mutate each year, this has minimal effect. Tackling the cushion, which in reality is the body of the virus, means setting about the aspect of flu that changes very little between seasons.
Experts have been concerned about this year’s flu season in particular, as an aggressive strain has already hit Australia and the southern hemisphere. It is expected to take hold in Britain this winter if measures are not taken to prevent it.
Simon Stevens, head of the NHS, issued stark warnings in September that bed-blocking patients should be discharged from hospitals to help deal with the expected consequences. The flu season starts in November, meaning there is only a short amount of time to prepare for its arrival.
Public Health England, the government’s health protection agency, has admitted that last year’s flu vaccine provided very little protection for elderly people. Analysis that it carried out showed that there was only a six per cent decrease in risk for the over-65s who had the jab, compared to those who didn’t.
Advice for the elderly this winter is still to have the flu jab until a more effective alternative can be ruled out. General good hygiene practices also help to reduce the spread of flu, so frequent hand washing and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing is important.