Personalized Flu Shots Offer Best Chance to Beat Season

A wave of new flu vaccines designed for the first time to focus on individual groups, including children, the elderly and people with allergies, may help boost U.S. vaccination rates as the new season develops this year.

Traditionally, less than half of Americans get vaccinated. Now, in a banner year, the Food and Drug Administration has approved three new vaccines for the nascent flu season that will bring the concept of personalized medicine to the yearly effort to control influenza, the nation’s eighth-biggest killer.

The new treatments join 10 others available for the 2013-2014 season, from companies including AstraZeneca Plc, Novartis AG, GlaxoSmithKline Plc and CSL Ltd. Facing an early start to this year’s season, health officials are seeking to beat the 45 percent vaccination rate achieved last year, when 1 of every 500 people older than 65 was hospitalized with the flu.

“There is plenty of vaccine, there are a ton of options, and there is no excuse for anyone any longer not to get vaccinated,” said David Greenberg, vice president of U.S. medical affairs for Paris-based Sanofi.

Drugmakers are increasingly embracing the steady revenue that comes from injections that must be taken every year with new ideas for vaccines that target specific groups. Sanofi, with $1.14 billion in flu shot sales for 2012, is the industry leader with just more than half the market.

This flu season people with allergies to chicken eggs used for traditional vaccines can now get Protein Sciences Corp.’s FluBlok, made with flu genes inserted into an insect virus. A handful of other offerings now cover all four strains of the most common circulating virus. There is also Sanofi’s high-dose Fluzone, targeted at the elderly, and London-based AstraZeneca’s Flumist, an inhaled version suited for children.

Personalized Medicine

“For the first time in human history, we can actually target an influenza vaccine to an individual patient,” said Gregory Poland, head of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minnesota. “That’s a great advance.”

Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recommends vaccinations for everyone 6 months of age and older, fear of side effects and needles scare some away. Cost is a deterrent for others, while some say it doesn’t help or, worse, falsely believe it may make them sick. Ennui and a belief they can dodge the disease leads many with health insurance to simply skip the shot.

Flu Schedule

Traditionally, the flu season picks up in December, first sickening residents in the southern and eastern parts of the U.S., then ranging across the country.

Last year the season started and peaked earlier than usual. Deaths related to influenza were at epidemic levels from late December until March and by the season’s end more than 50,000 Americans died from influenza and pneumonia. One of every 500 people older than 65 was hospitalized with the flu, a record since the CDC began tracking influenza admissions in 2005.

The season is also kicking off early in the south, with Mississippi and Texas reporting high activity and Alabama seeing moderate signs, according to the CDC monitoring efforts for the week ended Nov. 23.

The agency is making progress in getting more and more people vaccinated “but we’re not quite where we want to be,” Michael Jhung, a medical officer with the CDC’s influenza unit, said in a telephone interview. “Hopefully some of these new options will help us get there. The goal is to keep that number continually rising.”

By 2020, the CDC’s goal is to boost the nation’s vaccination rate to about 70 percent, according to Jhung.

Devastating Disease

Almost a decade ago, there were only two seasonal flu vaccines. Contamination at a manufacturing plant wiped out half the nation’s supply, leading health officials to ask doctors and clinics to reserve the shot for high-risk patients.

Fifty years ago, parents lined their children up to get the polio vaccine, after having seen the devastation the disease could leave in its wake, the Mayo Clinic’s Poland said. Few parents today have a similar view of influenza, though it has already killed two children this season.

“Young people, these new moms and dads, they don’t see the diseases so they assume they’re not at risk,” Poland said. “If you want to meet a proponent of vaccination, talk to someone whose child has been hospitalized or died from a vaccine-preventable illness.”

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