Campus Queries is a series in which Daily Bruin readers and staff present science-related questions for UCLA professors and experts to answer.
Q: Why is this season’s flu so dangerous, and what can be done to prevent it from spreading?
A: The 2017-2018 flu season is the most adverse season in three years. In the first week of January, 22.7 of every 100,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. were for the flu, according to National Geographic. This rate may grow in the next few months as researchers search for a vaccine.
The current vaccine is based on predictions from the last flu season. The World Health Organization has laboratories worldwide that look at various strains of the flu, which mutate every year, said Ren Sun, a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA. Creating a successful vaccine is difficult, and the best vaccines are only 60-percent effective, according to National Geographic.
This year, Sun said the vaccine particularly missed the mark, and the vaccine is less effective than usual. Sun said he thinks this is because this season’s flu virus was inaccurately predicted by WHO’s researchers.
“This year, the vaccine match is probably one of the lowest,” Sun said.
Sun said he is researching new vaccination techniques at UCLA. His team is looking at how the flu virus manages to evade detection by the human immune system and suppress the cell’s defense mechanisms. He added they plan to use this information to alter the virus’s genetic material so it will no longer be able to hinder the immune cells’ function. When a patient is infected with the vaccine containing a genetically modified virus, their body can quickly recognize that virus and develop immunity against future infections.
Sun said the genetically modified virus they created has been successfully tested in two animal models. He plans to conduct more research before the vaccine is used in humans, and said he thinks his research could improve future flu vaccine development. Sun added he thinks his research could have wide implications for future flu seasons by helping to prevent more people from getting sick.
Sun said no new flu vaccines will be announced in the next few weeks or months, but a new vaccine will hopefully be more successful in future flu seasons. In the meantime, he said students should take extra precautions, such as getting vaccinated and washing their hands often, to keep the virus from spreading on campus.