Mind & Body

Worried About Getting The Flu? Your Risk Is Tied To The Year You Were Born

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We have good news, and we have bad news. The good news is that the particular flu you were exposed to as a child probably gives you protection from several flu strains as an adult. The bad news is that it doesn't protect against all the others, and this makes it really hard to make a universal flu vaccine.

A 2016 study published in the journal Science brought us this bittersweet news. In a University of Arizona press release, study author Michael Worobey explained how it works using a lollipop analogy, since the immune system targets a particular protein on the flu virus that's shaped like a lollipop. There are 18 different subtypes of influenza A—consider those different lollipop shapes—and they all belong to one of two groups, which can be thought of as flavors. "In this analogy, let's say you were first exposed to a human 'orange lollipop' flu as a kid," Worobey explained. "If later in life you encounter another subtype of flu virus, one from a bird and one that your immune system has never seen before but whose proteins also are of a similar 'orange' flavour, your chances of dying are quite low because of cross-protection. But, if you were first infected with a virus from the 'blue lollipop' group as a kid, that won't protect you against this novel, 'orange' strain."

In our analogy, orange lollipops include the human H3 strain and the H7 strain of bird flu; and blue lollipops include human H1 and H2 strains and the bird H5N1 strain. The study found that people born before the late 1960s have been exposed to the "blue" strains; those born after were exposed to the "orange" strains. This means that even though flu most often kills the very young and very old, if a bird flu pandemic took hold that was in the blue lollipop group, it's likely that more young people would die than older people.

Because it appears we're each well equipped to fight only half of the known flu strains, there's a big challenge for those looking to develop a flu vaccine that works on everyone. Learn more about influenza and your body's immune system in the videos below.

Your Birth Year May Affect Your Resistance To Bird Flu

Hear about how the year you were born could make or break your survival during a bird flu pandemic.

Influenza and Vaccines: How Do They Work?

The National Science Foundation explains what influenza even is, and how vaccines can help you prevent it.

The Immune System Explained

Take an overhead view of how your immune system fights off infection.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. See the specific jobs of the cells of your immune system, and the complex ways they interact with each other: 00:17

  2. When killer T-cells go through their training process, only a quarter survives. 03:17

  3. Billions of antibodies flood into infections, disabling by bacteria by latching onto them. 05:15

Written by Curiosity Staff December 2, 2016

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