February 27, 2014

Flu season never ends for Group Health researchers

The Seahawks’ chances for the Super Bowl and the possibility of pandemic influenza: We predict both in late summer and see how we did in February. In the fight against influenza, Group Health Research Institute (GHRI) Senior Investigator Lisa A. Jackson, MD, MPH, and Assistant Investigator Michael Jackson PhD, MPH, (no relation) are our defensive coaches. They collect real-time data on the opponent and design agile strategies to stay ahead.

Here’s the 2014 field report from Dr. Lisa Jackson: “Although this year’s flu season is pretty typical, we’re seeing more hospitalizations of people under age 65 than normal, probably because H1N1 is the predominant virus and it affects younger people more than other flu strains.” H1N1 caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic and this year’s flu vaccine covers H1N1.

Dr. Jackson and her colleagues worked on early development of the H1N1 vaccine. But that job was just part of what the GHRI infectious disease teams do. Their flu work actually spans three distinct programs:

VTEU tests new vaccines and therapies

Dr. Lisa Jackson leads the GHRI Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit (VTEU) funded through 2023 by the National Institutes of Health to conduct clinical trials on new vaccines and therapies for influenza and other infectious diseases. In 2009, GHRI and other national VTEU sites tested new H1N1 vaccines produced in response to the pandemic. Because H1N1 virus has continued to circulate, “flu vaccines since then—including this year’s—offer protection against H1N1,” Dr. Jackson said.

The Group Health community was the 12th man in the successful H1N1 vaccine trials, according to Dr. Jackson.  She says Group Health members are knowledgeable about influenza, ready to participate in trials, and reliable. Group Health members are now helping the GHRI VTEU team test a new vaccine against the H7N9 virus, which has caused severe flu in China.

VSD tracks rare reactions

Once a vaccine is in clinical use, it is monitored by the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) program, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since 1990. The GHRI VSD site, also led by Dr. Lisa Jackson, contributes data to a national network with the power to detect rare reactions to vaccines so the CDC can quickly respond. The VTEU and VSD give us the best possible vaccines for the current and upcoming flu seasons. But GHRI investigators are also looking far downfield, to improve future influenza prevention, monitoring, and treatment.

Flu VE network monitors current-season prevention and treatment

In addition, Drs. Michael Jackson and Lisa Jackson are part of a program to study flu prevention and treatment in actual clinical practice. Measuring the real-world impact of efforts to fight influenza is tough, because the disease is complicated. Flu viruses change constantly and full protection requires annual vaccination. However, people might not get vaccinated every year; they might report that they had the flu when they had a cold or stomach virus.

To get solid data on who’s getting the flu, their flu vaccination history, and the virus’ impact on their lives, the CDC is supporting the U.S. Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness (Flu VE) Network. GHRI is one of five national study sites. Since 2012, GHRI staff have visited Group Health clinics during flu season and enrolled patients with flu-like symptoms for the study. Laboratory tests determine who really has the flu. Questionnaires and medical records supply information about participants’ vaccinations, treatments, and work loss from flu. The Flu VE sites combine their data to assess the effectiveness of the current flu vaccine, the number of people getting care for the flu, and the treatment they receive. Over time, the Flu VE Network will study the long-term effectiveness of flu vaccines and the economic impact of influenza. 

Data collected now for the Flu VE study, the VSD, and the VTEU will be analyzed and reported over the next months. Each spring and summer, the research teams plan for the following year, so flu season never ends for GHRI infectious disease researchers.

Drs. Lisa Jackson and Michael Jackson are both studying how to tailor flu vaccines and treatments to be more effective in specific populations such as older people. But for now, said Dr. Michael Jackson, our best defense against the flu is vaccination. “A lot of people think they had the flu but had some other virus,” he said. “If you really get the flu, you’re in bed for several days and feel like you were hit by a truck. It’s worth getting vaccinated to avoid that.”


by Chris Tachibana