November marked the start of flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. So if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, now’s the time. Unlike other vaccines that people may only need once in their lives, flu shots must be given yearly (to account for the ever-morphing virus it targets). But that soon may change. Researchers have just developed a vaccine that protects against many more types, or strains, of the flu virus. Its benefit? These shots might be able to confer lifelong protection from flu.
A flu shot can help you avoid fever, aches and fatigue that are no fun. But influenza poses far bigger risks for people who are very young or very old, or who have a weak immune system. For them this viral infection can be deadly.
U.S. statistics show how variable the risk of flu mortality can be from year to year. In some flu seasons, as few as 3,000 flu victims may die. Other years are far worse. Roughly 56,000 U.S. residents died from flu during the winter of 2012 to 2013.
Flu shots are the best defense against these infections. These vaccines teach the immune system how to identify a flu virus. That lets the body respond quickly to quash an infection before it can take hold.
But the flu virus evolves rapidly. The strains most likely to infect people this year will be different from last year’s major strains. If your immune system doesn’t recognize the latest version, you could get sick.
So scientists create new vaccines each year to target the latest variants. That’s why people need a new shot each year. But researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have developed a new vaccine that could last longer. To create it, they probed the genes of flu viruses and then “rewound” their evolutionary clock.
Hunting viral ancestors
Eric Weaver led the team. As a virologist, he studies viruses and how they affect the body. His group started by figuring out what the ancestral flu virus might have looked like. From what they learned, these researchers hoped to partially recreate some shared ancestor of today’s flu strains.
If two people trace their family trees back far enough, they will find a shared ancestor. That’s what…
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