Public Health Is…Fashionable.

Drawing by Christine Mineart

Fashion you say? Yes. Have you ever wondered how the annual flu vaccine is able to protect you against the next year’s flu strain? When you take a moment to consider how vaccines work (you take a part of the virus or bacteria and expose your system to it so that, when your body comes into contact with the complete bacteria/virus in day-to-day life, it can recognize it as foreign and is able to fight it off before it makes you sick), isn’t it incredible that we can magically predict what strain of the influenza will strike in the next season?
Well, it isn’t magic at all. Here’s how it works…Much like those who follow fashion, there are people out there—members of the World Health Organization—who put their feelers out for next year’s ‘in’ strain of the seasonal flu.

Five WHO Centres for Influenza and Essential Regulatory Labs: Atlanta, London, Beijing, Tokyo, and Melbourne.

Just like how, in the world of fashion, there is a “new black” every year, every year there is a new influenza.  There are two molecules on the surface of the flu that change annually in response to selective pressures, just like the selective pressures of changing fashions. These molecules are called hemagluttinin and neuraminidase (this is where the ‘H’ and the ‘N’ come from in ‘H1N1’). So every year 136 national centers from 106 countries send local samples of influenza to 5 WHO collaborating centers (you can think of them as the fashion capitals of the vaccinology world, much like New York, Milan, or Paris). Then, in February, a meeting is held to decide which strain is most “fashionable” and warrants mass production of a vaccine to  be distributed to pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and other “retailers” worldwide.

Click Here to learn more about this year’s unseasonably late Flu, the latest in 24 years!

10 thoughts on “Public Health Is…Fashionable.

    1. This is fabulous!

      If anyone has ever worked at a public health office, they know how revolutionary this is. No paper, no medical records to fax over…..

      Certainly both science and public health benefit from the ability to capture large amounts of population data instantly. I wonder what other types of surveillance efforts are using these strategies…

  1. I had no idea that this is the process behind the annual flu vaccine – thanks for sharing. This may be a bit off topic, but can you tell me what the difference is between the actual shot and the nasal-spray vaccine? Is one preferable to the other?

    1. Flu Shot:
      This is generally a killed vaccine with three common strains of influenza. It is given in the form of a shot so that your immune system can pick it up (these cells called Antigen Presenting Cells circulate in your skin and pick up foreign particles to present to your immune system).

      Nasal spray:
      This is a live-attenuated vaccine. This means that when spray the mist onto the mucosal surface of your nose it is actually a live virus BUT it is attenuated (meaning that it can’t replicate and infect you like a normal living virus could). The way the nasal spray is attenuated is by selecting for viruses that like to grow in cold temperatures over many generations so that when they are in your body, they can’t replicate at your body temperature.

      All of this means that the virus in the nasal spray will multiply just enough so that your immune system will be alerted to its presence and be able to pick up it and respond to it.
      Because all of this is happening on the mucous surface of your body, a special immune response takes place that is specific for your mucosal surfaces.

      Why does any of this matter? Because the next time your body comes in contact with Flu where it naturally would, in your respiratory tract, it can fight it off immediately with stronger immunity in the mucous layer.

      If you are healthy, both vaccines work and cost about the same.

      Important considerations are if you’ve gotten the nasal spray for 2 years in a row, you should probably get the shot because your immune system may actually fight off the live virus from the year before instead of giving you protection for this year’s virus. Also–people who are elderly, or have a suppressed immune system for any other reason should consider getting the shot because the nasal spray could cause more side effects.

      If you are healthy and ready to get the flu shot—the choice is yours.

  2. Wow. I had never thought about this before. Do the folks at WHO always get it right? What happens if they choose the wrong “black” ?

  3. This was so informative guys! I never realized what went into developing each year’s flu vaccine … I also really enjoyed the drawing on the top 🙂

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