BY JAMES HATAWAY
Special to the NTH
Flu season officially started Tuesday and the University of Georgia has signed a contract with the National Institutes of Health for an initial award of $8 million to develop a new, more advanced influenza vaccine designed to protect against multiple strains of influenza virus in a single dose, according to news.uga.edu .
The total funding could be up to $130 million over seven years if all contract options are exercised, according to UGA’s website.
UGA faculty will lead one of NIH’s new Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers (CIVICs) and collaborate with teams from 14 other universities and research institutes to create and test new vaccines that may one day replace seasonal vaccines administered every year during flu season.
The university expects that over the seven-year contract span, the project will be the largest award ever received by the University of Georgia.
The project will include specific attention to vaccine research for high-risk populations, according to Ted M. Ross, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of Infectious Diseases in UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine and director of UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology, who is leading the project.
“The main goal of our project is to identify vaccines that are broadly protective, meaning that they will protect people against most of the versions of the influenza virus that infect humans,” said Ross. “But we are particularly interested in developing a vaccine that protects the most vulnerable people in our population, including children, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems.”
The contract includes a base budget of $8 million for the first year of work, which begins this month, according to the UGA website. With NIH approval, the project is expected to continue at the same base amount of approximately $8 million per year for a total of seven years, through 2026.
In addition, UGA and NIH have also negotiated 33 expanded budget options, which NIH may exercise for up to a total of $130 million over the seven years of the project.
Team members from UGA and St. Jude will be joined by researchers from New York University; New York University – Langone Health; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of North Carolina; the Ragon Institute; the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai; the University of Texas; Emory University; the Georgia Institute of Technology; the University of Rochester; the University of Melbourne; and the Mayo Clinic.
This project has been funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of the NIH, Department of Health and Human Services.
Latest flu statistics
District 4, Georgia Department of Public Health tracks hospitalization rates for the metro Atlanta area, including Coweta.
District 4 also includes Coweta, Butts, Carroll, Fayette, Heard, Henry, Lamar, Meriwether, Pike, Spalding, Troup and Upson counties.
Flu season is considered Oct. 1 - May 30, according to Hayla Folden, with District 4 DPH.
“That is the time period that we are collecting data on flu-like illness. However, flu can circulate at any time,” Folden said.
Folden said flu vaccinations can prevent doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations.
“You can still contract the flu if you are vaccinated, however, it will be less severe and recovery will be quicker,” Folden said.
According to GDPH flu data from May, seven flu related hospitalizations were reported, with a total of 1,582 flu hospitalizations since Sept. 2018.
In fact, the occurrence of flu-like illness in Georgia remained high – 10 on a scale of 1-10 in mid-February, according to the DPH.
The CDC recommends a yearly flu shot for everyone ages 6 months or older.
During the 2017-2018 flu season, for example, influenza killed more than twice the number of people who died in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. An estimated 48.8 million people were infected, 959,000 were hospitalized and about 79,400 died from influenza, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Flu vs. cold
Piedmont officials said it is important to note the differences between the common cold and the flu.
Symptoms of flu include:
– aches and pains
– chest discomfort, cough
Sometimes people may also experience sneezing, sore throat and stuffy nose, but those symptoms are associated more with the common cold than the flu, according to Piedmont officials.
Piedmont Healthcare typically puts safeguards in place to ensure the safety of its patients, visitors and staff and to prevent transmission of the flu. This includes restricted visits to the Neonatal Intensive Care Units and to intermediate nurseries.
Flu stations are also set up around the hospital, stocked with surgical masks, hand sanitizer, tissues and signs encouraging anyone with flu-like symptoms to wear a mask.
Piedmont officials say they are following the CDC guidelines and encourage all visitors to
follow good hand hygiene by washing their hands often with soap and water, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable. Covering the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing and sneezing will also help stop the spread of the flu. Tissues should be thrown in the trash after each use.
People at high risk of serious flu complications, including young children; pregnant women; people with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease; people 65 years and older; and people who are immunocompromised should seek health care advice early on if they experience flu-like symptoms, according to Piedmont.
Folden recommends the following everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs.
– Avoid close contact with sick people and stay at home when you are sick.
– Wash your hands often.
– Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
– Avoid touching your face, including eyes, nose and mouth.
– Clean and disinfect common surfaces.
Kandice Bell, Newnan Times-Herald reporter, contributed to this story.