CLOSE
Original image

What Does it Matter if I'm Allergic to Eggs? (A Flu Shot FAQ)

Original image

Since we're right in the middle of flu shot season, here are the answers to a few questions you might be mulling over on your way to get your injection of this year's vaccine cocktail.

How long have flu shots been around?

The flu has been making us sick since at least 1580, when a major pandemic ripped through Europe and Asia, killing ten percent of Rome's population in a single week. Over a dozen pandemics have struck since then, but it wasn't until the 1930s that scientists actually identified the influenza virus as the cause of all this illness. One of the foremost researchers in the country, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., used ferrets to show that the illness was purely viral.


Once scientists found the culprit, Francis and his colleagues started working to find a cure. In 1941, they discovered a substance in the noses of people with colds that neutralized the virus and realized that recovering from the flu kick-started the immune system. By 1944, Francis' team had developed a working flu vaccine for the Army, and it soon became available to civilian patients.

Who were the guinea pigs for these first vaccines?

In 1943, Francis and his colleagues thought they had a working vaccine, but they needed test subjects. Who better to use than convicts? The first study of the vaccine's effectiveness centered on 200 inmates at the Ypsilanti (Michigan) State Hospital, where the shots seemed safe and effective. The drug then made its way to a larger national test population of 12,500; during the next flu outbreak, the unvaccinated population got the flu at a rate four times higher than their counterparts who had taken the shots.

Did any other big names work on that first vaccine?

Yup. One of Francis' star researchers was a hotshot young virologist named Jonas Salk, who went on to perfect the polio vaccine in 1955.

How would, say, Gerald Ford fight swine flu?

Glad you asked. There was another small outbreak of swine flu back in 1976, and President Ford sprang into action. Although there were only a handful of confirmed cases of the flu - all of them soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey - Ford ordered a flu shot for every single person in the country. It seemed like a good idea at the time; vaccinating the entire population could have headed off another pandemic like the one that shook the country in 1918.

ford_getting_swine_flu_shot.jpgThere were more than a few problems with Ford's master plan, though. The particular vaccine that went out for this program had the potentially terrible consequence of triggering the development of the nerve disease Guillain-Barre syndrome. In the first two months of the program, 500 vaccinated people developed Guillain-Barre, which damages the peripheral nervous system and can lead to paralysis; over 25 of these patients died from complications related to the disease.


While the flu was frightening, a potentially lethal or paralyzing nerve disease was even scarier to a lot of Americans. Support for Ford's mandatory vaccination program waned, and even though the First Family televised their own shots to allay the country's fears, public support for the program dropped off. In the end, the government pulled the plug on the vaccinations in December 1976, after 40 million Americans had been vaccinated.

So is Guillain-Barre still a worry for flu shot recipients?

Not really. While that 1976 swine flu virus vaccine was associated with Guillain-Barre, the CDC says that only one study of all the vaccines since has turned up any connection between a flu shot and GBS, and that study placed the risk of GBS at roughly one in a million.

Why do I have to get a new flu shot each year?

There are a couple of reasons. First, each year's seasonal flu shot contains three types of flu that the CDC, the FDA, and the World Health Organization think might be prevalent that year. These types, one A (H3N2) virus, one A (H1N1) virus, and one B virus, change from year to year. Furthermore, even if the virus types didn't change from year to year, the immunity offered by last year's flu shot would be somewhat weakened, so you'd want to top it off.

Why should I get vaccinated right now?

Because even if you get the vaccine today, you can still get the flu tomorrow. According to the CDC, it takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to really kick in and build up your antibodies to the point where you're protected from infection. In the meantime, the flu can still drop its hammer on you. To fight this lag time, the CDC recommends that you get your flu shot early in the fall before flu season gets rolling.

Why does my doctor care if I'm allergic to eggs?

Because dead flu viruses don't just grow on trees. In order to obtain dead viruses for use in flu shots, scientists have to grown the viruses themselves. The vast majority of these viruses are grown using fertilized chicken eggs.

There's hope if you're allergic to eggs, though. The federal government is supporting the drug company Novartis with almost $500 million in funding to create a new flu vaccine factory in Holly Springs, NC. The drug Novartis hopes to produce there, Optaflu, is novel because it comes from mammalian cell cultures rather than eggs. The facility could be ready to roll as early as 2010.

Can nasal spray vaccines make you or your family sick?

If you're afraid of needles, 2003 was a big year for you. That's when pharmaceutical company MedImmune introduced FluMist, a nasal spray alternative to the traditional flu shot. Whereas traditional shots gave patients dead flu viruses to build up antibodies, FluMist gave the needle-phobic a dose of living—albeit severely weakened—flu virus.

This sort of vaccine, which is known as a live attenuated vaccine, raised some eyebrows from worriers. If you were getting live flu virus, couldn't that make you sick or contagious to those around you? Probably not. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic concluded that while patients who had taken FluMist did shed some of the virus to their surroundings, it was a negligible amount that wouldn't infect an adult. While children were more susceptible, the New York Times researched the question and concluded that the overall likelihood of transmitting the flu virus after taking FluMist was only 2.5 percent.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
New Test Can Differentiate Between Tick-borne Illnesses
Original image
iStock

Time is of the essence in diagnosing and treating Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Fortunately, one new test may be able to help. A report on the test was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Ticks and the diseases they carry are on the rise. One 2016 study found deer ticks—the species that carries Lyme disease—in more than half of the counties in the United States.

The two most common tick-borne illnesses in the U.S. are Lyme disease and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Although their initial symptoms can be the same, they’re caused by different pathogens; Lyme disease comes from infection with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. We don’t know what causes STARI.

"It is extremely important to be able to tell a patient they have Lyme disease as early as possible so they can be treated as quickly as possible," microbiologist and first author Claudia Molins of the CDC said in a statement. "Most Lyme disease infections are successfully treated with a two- to three-week course of oral antibiotics." Infections that aren't treated can lead to fevers, facial paralysis, heart palpitations, nerve pain, arthritis, short-term memory loss, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

But to date, scientists have yet to create an accurate, consistent early test for Lyme disease, which means people must often wait until they’re very ill. And it’s hard to test for the STARI pathogen when we don’t know what it is.

One team of researchers led by experts at Colorado State University was determined to find a better way. They realized that, rather than looking for pathogens, they could look at the way a person’s body responded to the pathogens.

They analyzed blood samples from patients with both early-stage Lyme disease and STARI. Their results showed that while all patients’ immune systems had mounted a response, the nature of that response was different.

"We have found that all of these infections and diseases are associated with an inflammatory response, but the alteration of the immune response, and the metabolic profiles aren't all the same," senior author John Belisle of CSU said.

Two distinct profiles emerged. The team had found physical evidence, or biomarkers, for each illness: a way to tell one disease from another.

Belisle notes that there’s still plenty of work to do.

"The focus of our efforts is to develop a test that has a much greater sensitivity, and maintains that same level of specificity," Belisle said. "We don't want people to receive unnecessary treatment if they don't have Lyme disease, but we want to identify those who have the disease as quickly as possible."

Original image
iStock
arrow
technology
Google Can Warn You When Your Allergies Are About to Go Haywire
Original image
iStock

How much allergy medication are you going to need today? Google can tell you. Well, it can give you a forecast, at least, as The Verge reports.

Google announced on August 16 that the search engine will now auto-populate search results for pollen and allergy information with allergy forecasts from The Weather Channel. The integration will include the most recent pollen index and allergy forecast data, showing a 5-day forecast detailing whether you’re likely to feel seasonal allergy symptoms throughout the week.

An animation shows a scroll of Google’s search results for pollen with allergy forecasts.
Google

If you have the Google app, you can set it to send push notifications when the pollen count is notably high that day, so you know to sequester yourself safely indoors. Hopefully you don't live in a city like Jackson, Mississippi, which in 2016 was named the worst city in the U.S. for allergy sufferers. There, your phone may be pinging every day.

While you can already find this information on sites like Pollen.com, having it show up immediately in search results saves you a few extra clicks, and frankly, it’s far more readable than most allergy and weather forecast sites.

Too bad a search engine can't cure our sneezes and watery eyes, though. Time to stock up on Kleenex, get a jumbo bottle of allergy meds, and maybe buy yourself a robot vacuum.

[h/t The Verge]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios