Scientists at University of Michigan’s ‘Flu Lab’ work to learn more about furious flu season

Researchers hope to find answers to fast, furious flu season

How bad will this flu season be? How effective is the vaccine against it? Local 4 is taking you inside the “Flu Lab” where Metro Detroit researchers are working to find those answers.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – How bad will this flu season be? How effective is the vaccine against it? Local 4 is taking you inside the “Flu Lab” where Metro Detroit researchers are working to find those answers.

The flu got off to a fast and furious start this season in Michigan. Researchers are gathering data needed to help fight the flu.

Flu experts said the only thing predictable about the flu is how unpredictable it is. That makes the information gathered in the Flu Lab even more valuable as the flu season unfolds.

“Because we do all this surveillance in real time in the community, we’re able to let the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) know right away what’s around in Michigan,” said Emily Martin, PhD, of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Flu samples are constantly arriving at the School of Public Health.

“We process thousands and thousands of samples here,” Martin said. “I think last year we processed 5,000 samples to see whether or not they had flu. This time of year, we are just usually getting started, but now we are in full swing. You may be hearing there is a lot of hospitalization and a lot of flu activity already, which is unusual."

She said this flu season is already notable for two reasons.

“One is we are having a very early season,” Martin said. “We don’t know if that means that it is going to be a big season or if it is going to be the same size, just shifted earlier than usual. The second thing that is different this year is that in previous years we will usually have some influenza A and then we will have a little bit of influenza B that comes a little later in the season, in the spring, and this year it is backwards."

That information comes from patients in the area.

“We look at hospitalized patients at three different hospitals,” Martin said. “We are in 12 different doctors offices where we swab people who are sick and we see what type of flu that they have and see whether or not they were vaccinated. Then we also enroll families that stay with us all year and check in on them regularly and we test them every time they are sick and we use that as another way to see how their immune system is developing and who is getting the flu, specifically over time.”

The family-based research is called the HIVE study, or Household Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Study. It’s a key part of what makes the Flu Lab’s data particularly important to the CDC.

“We are the only place in the country that looks both in the community and doctors offices and hospitals at the same time,” Martin said.

Additional testing then looks at the effectiveness of the flu vaccines.

“Now we can tell if you did get the vaccine whether the antibodies you got from the vaccine are actually matching the virus that you were infected with or not,” Martin said. “It helps us really drill down to trying to figure out -- if for whatever reason the vaccine isn’t a match this year -- why isn’t it a match?”

While influenza B has been all the buzz this flu season, experts are starting to see a shift.

“We are starting to see the emergence of influenza A, the H1N1,” Martin said. “The good news is that is a very well matched vaccine. The vaccine for the strain that is coming next is very, very good.”

That means if you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, there is a very good reason to still get it. As for how long this flu season will last -- that’s still anybody’s guess.

“If it resolves soon, it will just be a regular season that was early,” Martin said. “If it keeps going, it could be a fairly large flu season for us.”

Martin said experts should soon have at least a preliminary idea of how the vaccines are working.

RSV has also been a huge problem this year, especially in very young children. There’s no vaccine for RSV, but the research at the Flu Lab will help the CDC understand who is getting sick from RSV and how severe the illnesses are. There are some RSV vaccines in development, so this will help that process.

About the Authors:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.