Touching Lives - November 2006
Fighting fit to fight the flu
There is no cure for the flu. It is a major cause of illness and its well-known symptoms can be extremely debilitating, even for the most resilient amongst us.
More vulnerable people, such as the elderly, are at risk of developing serious complications, including pneumonia, and sadly, many go on to lose their lives to the flu. In an average year it leads to around 1,000 deaths, but during the epidemic of 1989, 27,000 people died as a result of catching the flu.
People vary in how well their immune system responds to the flu vaccine. Studies suggest the flu jab may halve an elderly person’s chances of being infected by the influenza virus, but this leaves many people at risk of catching it despite having been vaccinated.
Researchers in Birmingham have been awarded a grant of just over £100,000 to build on exciting preliminary data which suggests that immunity to the flu is boosted if a short exercise routine is performed before the jab is administered. The researchers aim to recruit 320 healthy young men and women, who will have the flu jab after performing arm exercises, involving lifting weights. The exercises cause inflammation in the arm, which researchers believe might kick-start the immune system in readiness for the injection.
Doctors Christopher Ring, Jos Bosch, Kate Edwards and Mark Drayson, along with Professors Douglas Carroll and John Gordon, and research leader Dr Victoria Burns, will first identify the best time to give the flu jab after exercise, comparing immune responses in people vaccinated immediately after exercising, after a delay of 6 and 48 hours, and in people who haven’t exercised at all. They will also identify the optimal exercise intensity by varying the weights used.
This project should clearly establish whether a short bout of exercise boosts the immune response to the flu vaccine in healthy young people. If exercise does help, there will be an urgent need for further trials in the vulnerable population of older people who are most at risk from the flu. Researchers believe this project will provide the information they need to get on with conducting large-scale trials in older people as quickly as possible.
Exercise could be a very simple, cheap and natural way to boost the effects of the flu jab. It may also mean the jab can work at lower doses, which would decrease costs and increase availability. The repercussions of this research could be even more widespread. If exercise helps boost the effects of the flu jab, then it may also help in vaccination programmes against a wide range of other infectious diseases.
Dr Burns says,”We were so excited to be awarded this Action Medical Research grant. It is only with this generous support that we are able to run these large-scale trials.Without it, our promising intervention would remain in the laboratory. With this funding we will be able to develop the exercise programme so that it can potentially be used in a clinical setting in the future.”