Where does the flu vaccine come from?
Although the flu is often thought of as a common, relatively nonthreatening illness today, influenza was a significant danger in the era before the flu vaccine. In the most famous example of the dangers of the flu, the 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic claimed the lives of 50 million people.
In most people, flu symptoms resolve themselves within a few weeks. But for patients who are already at risk due to other health problems, who are elderly or pregnant, or develop complications, the flu can be extremely dangerous.
For these populations, the flu vaccine can make an enormous difference. In fact, the European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control specifically recommend the flu vaccine for high-risk groups. The World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control have even more sweeping recommendations, suggesting that nearly everyone should receive a flu vaccine.
But how does the flu vaccine work, and where does it come from?
The history of the flu vaccine
The flu vaccine was initially created in 1938 by Thomas Francis and Jonas Salk, the latter of whom would later go on to develop the polio vaccine in 1952. Initially used to protect soldiers during World War II, the flu vaccine gradually increased in usage among the general population.
Part of the challenge in developing a flu vaccine is that influenza is a rapidly changing virus. Vaccine effectiveness only lasts about a year, because the virus mutates quickly enough that the previous year’s vaccine becomes ineffective.
Most flu vaccines work by protecting against the common strains of flu. Influenza can be caused by A-, B-, and C-type viruses, and vaccines are adjusted each season to account for the strains patients are likely to encounter that year. The vaccine works by jump-starting your immune system, helping your body create antibodies that target each strain of flu. If you are then exposed to the flu, your body’s defenders can respond immediately, before you experience symptoms.
Is the vaccine 100 percent effective? No. Sometimes an unexpected strain of flu, one not covered by the vaccine, can cause symptoms. But because the side effects a minimal and the vaccines are generally effective, it’s usually worth getting the vaccine.