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A shot in the arm

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If you’re among the high-risk group that’s been urged by health professionals to get a ’flu shot because of your age or a chronic illness, chances are you’ve also wondered what goes into the making of the vaccine which could save your life.

A global network of laboratories and two world centres, co-ordinated by the World Health Organization, determines what the vaccine strain will be each year, said Jason Eadie, group product manager in marketing for Pasteur Mérieux Connaught, the world’s leading vaccine company and the free world’s largest supplier of influenza vaccine.

It also is the only North American manufacturer of both injectable and oral polio vaccines.

Eadie, who has a degree in microbiology and immunology, deals with the formation of adult and traveller vaccines, including influenza.

“One [world centre] is in the United Kingdom and the other is in Atlanta, Ga.,” he said yesterday from his Toronto office.

“They get their information from laboratories strategically placed around the world, which collect blood specimens from those suspected as having the influenza virus,” he added.

In this way, new strains of the virus may be identified and their spread monitored. They also may be considered for inclusion in the current vaccine.

Eadie noted a new vaccine strain takes roughly eight months to manufacture.

Meanwhile, Eadie said the idea that you can get the ’flu from the vaccine is false.

“That’s a big myth,” he stressed. “You cannot get the ’flu from an influenza vaccine because it is inactive.

“The virus particles are still there but are dead. The [human] body sees the virus as a foreign substance and amounts an immune response,” he explained.

The vaccine is recommended for anyone over the age of six months with a chronic health condition, Eadie said.

“Seven out of 10 who get the vaccine will be prevented from getting the ’flu, with the [remaining] having a reduction of severity of the ’flu,” he remarked.

Eadie also said the influenza virus is constantly mutating and changing, which keeps the sentinel labs and the disease control centres on alert in order to head off a major shift which could result in the worldwide spread of a new influenza virus or pandemic.

Such a situation occurred in 1918-19 when a new strain killed 20 million people. The last pandemic was in 1977-78 and called the “Russian ’Flu.”

“It began in northern China in May and by November-December was in Southeast Asia,” Eadie recalled. “By the following February, it was in the U.S.

“Traditionally, [a pandemic] occurs every 10-13 years [and] we are due for one,” he warned. “That possibility is always being looked at and is of great concern.”

Canada has had a contingency plan for pandemic influenza in place since 1985, and it just recently was updated.

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