Influenza vaccines are the best way to protect against flu infections and serious, even deadly complications. But there’s room to improve.
In a good year, flu shots prevent infections in 70% to 90% of healthy children and adults under age 65. The vaccine is less effective for those at greatest risk. These include kids with cancer, people over 65, and those who are pregnant or obese. Also, at risk are those who have chronic illnesses, including diabetes and asthma.
Scientists at St. Jude and the University of Georgia were picked to help change that. They will lead a team funded by the National Institutes of Health. Their goal—develop better flu vaccines, especially for the most vulnerable populations.
“The goal is to develop vaccines that are more broadly protective against multiple flu strains. Our priority is vaccines to safeguard populations we know will develop more severe disease if infected,” said Stacey Schultz-Cherry, PhD, of the St. Jude Department of Infectious Diseases. She also co-directs the Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance at St. Jude.
Schultz-Cherry and Ted Ross, PhD, of the University of Georgia, will lead the new Center for Influenza Vaccine Research for High Risk Populations. A seven-year NIH contract of up to $130 million will fund the work. The project encompasses 14 universities and research institutes.
Flu is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. In an average year, it kills about 36,000 people. But the toll can go higher. The 2017–18 flu season included about 48.8 million flu infections in the U.S. and about 79,400 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have to develop more effective vaccines,” Schultz-Cherry said. “Working together, this effort will help us create a vaccine development pipeline to speed the process.”