Ready for flu season?? Influenza is widespread in most of the US -reports @CDCgov @CDCflu

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that influenza is now widespread in 36 states. (gif credit – CauseScience, using map images from CDC FLUVIEW).

A mutated strain of the flu has caused the virus to spread to epidemic proportions, the CDC said in a new alert.

Thirty-six states — most in the Midwest — are experiencing flu cases at widespread rates, according to the latest data from the governmental body. Just a handful, like California, Alaska and Hawaii, had local or sporadic flu activity.

Weekly reports on influenza are available at the CDC website, and also using FLUVIEW – the CDC’s interactive tool. More in-depth information about this years influenza outbreak can be found here.flu;Also, don’t forget to get your flu vaccine if you haven’t already!!!

[tweet https://twitter.com/CDCFlu/status/549969131689476096]

CauseScience reader question: Influenza vaccination and tired anti-vaccine talking points #science

fbcsThis is the first CauseScience reply to a question from a reader (via facebook, image above)!! The reader asked what CauseScience makes of the flu vaccine, and posted a BMJ article from Peter Doshi about the influenza vaccine, “Influenza: marketing vaccine by marketing disease.”

First off, as posted on facebook, CauseScience supports the use of all vaccines that have been scientifically proven effective and safe… including the influenza vaccine.

In reply to the BMJ article. I would first direct readers to a blog post from Poxes Blog here, which looks at Doshi’s credentials and addresses many of the points made in the paper. In summary –  Doshi, who is not an epidemiologist or statistician, does not seem to understand how estimates of flu deaths are calculated or the nuances of influenza vaccine effectiveness (nasal spray vs. injection). Doshi under-emphasizes the dangers of the flu, and over-emphasizes the risks associated with vaccination, which are not beyond what is normal for a typical vaccine. Unfortunately, vaccines do carry some health risks, but for most people these risks are offset by their effectiveness. Just today on facebook I saw this article posted by a friend, ‘Widower of flu victim urges people to get flu shots.’ Clearly the flu can kill.

The other arguments made by Doshi are standard fare for anti-vaccine activists. The familiar claims that vaccines are not effective and are overly dangerous. However, to support these arguments they cherry pick data, use correlation to denote causation, and ignore broader swings in data and focus on single points. On mortality, Doshi makes the tired claim that mortality decreased prior to widespread vaccination, while ignoring the facts that mortality can decrease in that period due to better healthcare, sanitation, nutrition etc. However, incidence of vaccine preventable disease in the same period would show a dramatic reduction with implementation of vaccination. In addition, when vaccine rates drop, disease incidence increases, more supportive evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines.

While Doshi’s article does perhaps have points about improving vaccine effectiveness and reporting, it is hard to take it seriously with so much wrong, misleading, anti-vaccination blather. Unfortunately this article has made the anti-vaccine rounds many many times since it was published in 2013.

How ‘Crazy, Dangerous’ is the new controversial flu virus research?

virus2 You may have seen some inflammatory news articles about recent work from Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s lab in Madison, Wisconsin that made a 1918 Spanish Flu-like virus. Like this one from the Guardian by Ian Sample. While it is certainly important to draw attention to controversial research that could impact public health, this article seems a little bit like sensationalistic fear-mongering. Luckily, the LAST paragraph addresses some of the concerns:

Carole Heilman, director of microbiology and infectious diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid) in the US, said: “This study was conducted as part of a research project on understanding the molecular mechanisms of virulence of the 1918 influenza virus. NIH peer review determined that the research was scientifically meritorious. It was also determined that the information gained had the potential to help public health agencies in their assessment of circulating and newly emerging strains. In addition, NIH determined that all the research was being done under appropriate biosafety conditions and with appropriate risk mitigation measures.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Yoshihiro Kawaoka has been in the news for working on infectious viruses. The work was done in a lab with Biosafety Level 3-agriculture (BSL-3A), which is close to the highest security level (just a half step below BSL-4).

Wendy Barclay (an influenza virologist) has written a great article defending Kawaoka’s research for the Conversation. She points out some reasons not to fear the work being done.

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Reassuringly, the particular virus created by Kawaoka and colleagues was recognised by antibodies from people vaccinated against the modern day 2009 pandemic influenza. This suggests that if it were to escape the lab it would not be good at infecting and spreading in people as most of us already have that type of antibody as a result of being vaccinated or naturally infected since 2009.

Dr. Barclay also makes sure to highlight that this is not the work of some independent mad-scientist. All of the work being done had to be justified and approved by NIH, including proper precautionary measures taken for the research.

This type of knowledge forms part of the risk assessment that scientists perform before they begin this type of work and which is updated as the experiment proceeds.

She also explains why work like this is crucial for public health.

If we want to understand how to deal with viruses that are both highly virulent and transmissible, we need to have such a virus to work with. This should be done by experts under very highly contained conditions such as those used in Wisconsin in the Kawaoka labs.

Lastly, she acknowledges that although the experiments were justified, were beneficial, and were not a huge risk to public health, that informed debate about this type of research is necessary and should guide what type of research is done.

Nonetheless, scientists do not have a licence to create at will any virus they dream up – each one needs to be risk assessed individually and the reasons for doing the experiment should be clear. And we should of course continue with an informed debate on where the limits of our scientific endeavours should lie not just for research with flu viruses but with other pathogens and scientific advances as well.

Thank you Wendy Barclay and the Conversation for putting out a great article that truly addresses this research with a knowledgeable level head!