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“As a flu researcher,” says Stacey Schultz-Cherry, “it’s frustrating to hear ‘it’s just flu.'” This podcast helps listeners gain a much better understanding about the constant effort to pin down strains for vaccines and the need for better spillover maintenance.

She explains

  • Why researching infectious viruses like influenza in high-risk populations is vital for their health, 
  • How the influenza virus structure, like the RNA-segmented construction, makes these strains recombine, and
  • Why even if it is not 100% effective, a flu vaccine will still prevent you from getting severe disease and ending up in the hospital.

Stacey Schultz-Cherry is a member of St. Jude Faculty and specializes in flu research. Her lab just received funding to make flu vaccines more effective for at-risk populations, populations who experience much less efficacy with the vaccine. But she takes this podcast opportunity to educate listeners about the vaccine itself and influenza causes and the microbiology of viruses.

She clears up several misunderstandings. For example, she says the reason scientists can’t just give one shot with 20 different strains is because of the interactions between the strains. One strain can outgrow another, for example, or your body might mount a higher response to one component over another. But scientists are researching how to make this possible.

She also teaches listeners about the yearly process of sequencing strains that are out there and taking data from around the world to make the best predictions possible and choose the four strains it seems best to include.

Why is it so complicated? Well, she says, influenza is an RNA virus that is segmented. So each gene has its own segment. That means in can recombine it unpredictable ways.

Furthermore, there’s something called “virus drift,” with an error-prone polymerase. This equates to a genetic drift. The endless possible combinations are mostly not a problem for humans, but those that do spillover cause the bird flus that are so deadly. She also explains the nomenclature of the different strains, why the flu vaccine can help keep you out of the hospital, and more.

For more good influenza resources, she suggests the CDC section on flu, the WHO pages that address the data, and Trevor Bedford’s site at Fred Hutch. Her lab’s website also provides information.

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