Every year sometime in Autumn, Kiwis across the country line up to get jabbed in the arm.
They are trying to fend off the watery eyes, sore throats, aching body, fevers and chills all associated with the dreaded flu, by getting the flu vaccine that should hold them through to the next year.
However, scientists tucked away in Wellington are now a step closer to finding a universal flu vaccine that could last up to five years.
Scientist and policy advisor Dr George Slim, 58, was one of more than 2000 Wellingtonians who took part in this year’s testing, to help develop a longer flu vaccine.
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Slim said he was randomly selected to participate in the study, run by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited (ESR), earlier in the year.
“I’m really interested in this and I’ve been following ESR’s work since the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic.
“What they do is really vital and the current study is a world leading piece of research,” Slim said.
Lower Hutt mum-of-four Rochelle Maroon, another study participant, said her doctor asked her if she’d like to participate.
“I thought it would be a good way to make a difference: to help determine if vaccines were working and make them better for everyone,” she said.
Maroon and her fellow guinea pigs were vaccinated in April and then surveyed weekly. Those with a cough and fever had a nose or throat swab taken to test for viruses that cause the flu or other respiratory infections.
As of mid-October, 61 flu cases were identified up amongst study participants, with 51 of those cases detected from August onwards, which fits with the late flu season that New Zealand experienced.
Maroon said she had “quite a bad flu” in May.
ESR spokesperson Jerome Cvitanovich said researchers hoped the results of the Southern Hemisphere Influenza and Vaccine Effectiveness Research and Surveillance (Shivers-II) study would make a difference to the way influenza is managed in the future.
The study is being funded by the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – and Cvitanovich said its findings would have a global impact.
In New Zealand, 400 people die each year from influenza or complications relating to it. The elderly, pregnant women and their babies, and people with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable.
Epidemiologist Claire Newbern said the results from the study would help the medical world think about ways to create a more efficient flu vaccine, with the neuraminidase protein – which helps the influenza virus replicate – becoming ESR scientists’ focus.
“We know that the flu vaccine is not wonderful. It has about a 50 per cent chance of helping someone not get the flu when they get the vaccine,” Newbern said.
“You want it to be much higher for a vaccine.”