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5 Important Things to Know About the 2018 Flu Season

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It's normal for people to fantasize about taking a Hawaiian vacation in the dead of winter, but the far-flung tropical state holds extra allure right now: Hawaii is the only area in the U.S. that hasn't yet reported widespread influenza activity, according to the Center for Disease Control's latest flu report.

Thirty-two states so far (plus New York City and Puerto Rico) are currently experiencing "high" flu activity, and nearly 9000 influenza-related hospitalizations (mainly involving seniors, middle aged patients, and children) have been reported since October 1, 2017. Whether you've been personally affected by the virus or managed to avoid it thus far, here's what you need to know about this year's flu season.

1. IT'S BAD BUT NOT UNPRECEDENTED.

Yes, this flu season is bad, but not apocalyptically so. In fact, the 2014–2015 season was "just as bad, if not worse," Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told MD Magazine. "Though the perception has been ‘Wow, this is unprecedented,' in no way is it unprecedented."

Most states have reported high influenza levels and an increase in pediatric influenza hospitalizations. But both the 2014–2015 and 2012–2013 seasons saw even greater child hospitalization rates in early January, according to Fauci. The current flu season has been hyped mostly because it came in earlier than expected, and with a vengeance—not because it's more severe than in the past.

2. MULTIPLE STRAINS OF FLU ARE CIRCULATING—AND ONE IS PARTICULARLY VIRULENT.

Multiple influenza strains are currently circulating throughout the U.S., with the most vicious one being the H3N2 flu. According to CDC experts, flu seasons dominated by H3N2 can lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths—and unfortunately, the current flu vaccine may be just 30 percent effective against this particular strain. On average, a flu shot is around 40 to 60 percent effective.

The seasonal flu shot allows individuals to develop infection-fighting antibodies against strains that experts predict will soon be be widespread. This year, experts thought that the H1 strain would reign supreme, and they designed the vaccine accordingly. People are indeed still catching it, and the shot grants them protection against this strain. While it offers less protection against H3N2, it can still lessen the severity of your illness if you do come down with it.

3. THE FLU SEASON HAS LIKELY PEAKED, BUT IT'S NOT OVER QUITE YET.

The CDC announced on Friday, January 12, that the influenza illness had likely reached its zenith for the 2017–2018 flu season. But just because it's peaked doesn't mean it's over; in fact, officials say we may have up to three months to go until we're officially out of the germy woods. Keep your guard up: Wash your hands, tote around hand sanitizer, and avoid sniffly colleagues.

4. IT'S NOT TOO LATE TO GET YOUR FLU SHOT.

Getting an annual flu shot in the fall provides you with maximum protection, but it isn't too late to get vaccinated if you forgot to schedule a seasonal appointment.

Even if you're not worried about getting sick yourself, it's still important to get the shot to protect others; when it comes to infectious disease, we're all in this together. Epidemiologists call that mutual collective protection herd immunity. Hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized with influenza each year, and thousands or tens of thousands die from it, according to the CDC. The flu can be particularly dangerous for seniors, young children, pregnant women, and those with chronic medical conditions. They run the risk of developing severe complications that can lead to hospitalization and even death. Eighty-five percent of the 30 children who have died from flu this year so far were not vaccinated.

Bottom line: Make a beeline to your doctor or pharmacy post-haste if you haven't gotten your shot. This also goes for those who've already come down with the flu—it's still possible that you could become infected by yet another strain.

5. FLU CAN LIVE FOR A LEAST A DAY IN A HANDKERCHIEF. 

In addition to hand hygiene, practice tissue hygiene—and steer clear of hankies at all cost—to avoid coming down with the flu. Viruses can survive in a handkerchief for about a day and spread, and the same presumably goes for a used tissue, which is why it's important to use it just once before tossing it into the trash.

BONUS: SCIENTISTS ARE WORKING ON A UNIVERSAL FLU VACCINE.

In 2017, the NIH resolved to work towards a universal flu vaccine, designed to safeguard against all (or almost all) flu strains. More than 150 researchers have collaborated to work on the initiative, with researchers searching for rare flu targets and playing close attention to animal flu strains that might jump to humans.

Several vaccine prototypes are now entering the first stages of human safety testing. One vaccine removes the "head" of a protein coating the virus, where mutations often occur. Another alters the protein so that it's alien to the immune system, triggering a response. Yet another combines four different proteins in hopes the immune system will mount defenses against multiple strains. Ideally, a universal vaccine would be given to people when they are young to hopefully create a lifetime of protection, the NIH's Fauci told CBS News: "The vision of the field is that ultimately if you get the really good universal flu vaccine, it's going to work best when you give it to a child."

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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Medicine
New Peanut Allergy Patch Could Be Coming to Pharmacies This Year
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About 6 million people in the U.S. and Europe have severe peanut allergies, including more than 2 million children. Now, French biotechnology company DBV Technologies SA has secured an FDA review for its peanut allergy patch, Bloomberg reports.

If approved, the company aims to start selling the Viaskin patch to children afflicted with peanut allergies in the second half of 2018. The FDA's decision comes in spite of the patch's disappointing study results last year, which found the product to be less effective than DBV hoped (though it did receive high marks for safety). The FDA has also granted Viaskin breakthrough-therapy and fast-track designations, which means a faster review process.

DBV's potentially life-saving product is a small disc that is placed on the arm or between the shoulder blades. It works like a vaccine, exposing the wearer's immune system to micro-doses of peanut protein to increase tolerance. It's intended to reduce the chances of having a severe allergic reaction to accidental exposure.

The patch might have competition: Aimmune Therapeutics Inc., which specializes in food allergy treatments, and the drug company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. are working together to develop a cure for peanut allergies.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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