Health officials wait to see if the flu vaccine will prove effective in Minnesota

Published 6:15 am Thursday, December 5, 2019

By Alisa Roth

MPR News/90.1

Health officials say Minnesotans soon will experience the full punch of flu season, and it’s not too late to get vaccinated. The process of acquiring a vaccine against a virus connected to thousands of hospitalizations in the state every year has not varied much over the years.

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That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota, said unlike some viruses such as the one that causes measles, the flu virus changes often.

“What we need is vaccine that can recognize stable parts of flu virus and not be fooled by a changing flu virus that can still go in and create immune response from the host that will cover that,” Osterholm said.

To try to get to the parts of the virus that are stable, scientists have to figure out how to get past the parts that mutate. If they could make a vaccine based on the parts that stay the same, the vaccine would last longer than a single season.

During the last flu season, 2,522 people in Minnesota were hospitalized with confirmed influenza. State officials say they received reports of 126 influenza-related deaths. Officials also confirmed two children died from influenza-related complications.

Karen Martin, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the World Health Organization looks at data from around the world to try to find the three or four flu strains on which to base a vaccine.

“Many of those are on specimens collected from hospitalized influenza cases, but we do have programs where outpatient clinics can send us specimens as well, so we get broad sample of people with influenza as well,” Martin said.

It can be difficult to come up with a vaccine months ahead of time because the virus could change substantially. Another challenge is that people respond to the vaccines differently. Osterholm said new research suggests that the first viruses we’re exposed to as little kids can affect how well our bodies respond.

Even so, scientists say there’s no question we should be getting the vaccine.

“You don’t go out and buy insurance with the idea that you want to have an accident. You buy insurance because in case you do have an accident you have it,” the U’s Osterholm said. “Flu vaccines are kind of the same way. We get them hoping they’re going to work.”

Now, it’s still going to be awhile before we know how well the vaccine actually works. Martin sees flu activity picking up in the southern part of the country, with Minnesota and other northern states to follow.