Flu season expected to hit area within weeks

Still time to get vaccinated before virus strikes

By Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

December 20, 2013

 

In contrast to its early fall arrival last year, the seasonal flu is expected to strike New England sometime in January or February, historically the most common time for the virus to peak, according to UMass Medical School infectious disease expert Robert W. Finberg, MD.

With only minimal activity reported locally, there is still time for people to schedule flu shots to protect themselves against the virus.

“There have already been more cases in the south than we usually see in a non-endemic period, and isolated cases reported in this area, so we think the seasonal disease is coming soon, in the next couple weeks,” said Dr. Finberg, the Richard M. Haidack Professor of Medicine and chair and professor of medicine.

An internationally recognized expert in viruses, Finberg is lead investigator on a $12 million project to develop new ways of predicting how the influenza virus changes and evolves in response to anti-viral drugs and the human immune system. This approach has promise for becoming a pivotal tool in creating a more effective vaccine against the virus.

“Historically, flu vaccines are made from strains that are currently circulating,” said Finberg. “What we’re trying to do is determine what the future virus will be.”

The influenza virus is a highly contagious, acute respiratory illness that infects an average of 10 percent of the population annually and can infect as much as 50 percent of the population in severe years. This year’s vaccine, as is typical, is derived from the most recent cases of the flu available. It provides protection against infection for roughly 60 percent of people who receive it.

The ability to predict and more accurately select which strains of influenza are likely to cause severe illness in humans could markedly improve the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Finberg is leading the project, which seeks to develop new technologies to predict natural viral evolution. The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, through its Prophecy Program.