Univ. of Iowa trials aim to make flu vaccine more efficient as "more severe" season predicted this year

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) Local health officials predict a more severe strain of influenza to impact this year's flu season.

That's part of the reason why the University of Iowa is working to develop a more effective seasonal flu vaccine for future years with their latest clinical trials.

“I think every year is different," Pat Winokur, Carver College of Medicine Executive Dean, said. "This year, we will probably have a strain that will be a little bit more severe."

Winokur says that's based on what they are seeing in the Southern Hemisphere. Typically, they get the flu 6 months earlier.

"It's one that people get a little sicker with," Winokur said.

What's promising, however, is that this year's vaccine matches what was circulating there pretty well.

"But, every once in awhile Mother Nature throws a kick and the strains change," Winokur said.

Because of that, the vaccines aren't as effective, so they're trying to keep up with the changing strains.

The University is leading a new set of clinical trials to make the seasonal vaccine's protection last longer and work better.

"The problem is the seasonal flu vaccine has to be made differently each year and some years, it's just not as effective as it should be," Winokur said. "What we’re doing right now is really trying to understand the science. We're actually using last year's flu vaccine, but were adding these extra compounds to see if we can boost the immune response in people who may or may not have gotten last year's flu vaccine."

They are currently following patients, who received the trial vaccines, around for a year, looking for indicators like unexpected side effects and immune response over time.

"One of the things we know with flu vaccines is the antibodies just kind of peter out after about 6 months or so, so if we had a better vaccine, we think the antibodies would last longer," Winokur said.

Peak flu season just started this month, but health professionals say it's hard to tell if over the years flu seasons have been getting longer.

"In the past, we had some extended seasons. Last year, we had a particularly long season and it went through the end of May and the beginning of June," Cathi Kane, a nurse at Mercy Medical Center, said.

She recommends getting this year's shot as soon as possible.

"There are high-risk populations that should really consider, and those populations are pregnant women, the elderly and the very young," Kane said.

From a vaccine standpoint, it's one of the most challenging viruses to develop a vaccine for because of the unpredictability, but health officials like Winokur said past trials have actually made a difference in today's practices.

"We participated in some of the vaccine trials for high dose flu vaccines, which are now recommended for the elderly and they actually prevent flu better,” Winokur said.