December 16, 2011 | The Editors

Does a flu vaccine make sense for Senegal?

Chris Victor, advisor for epidemiologic science and clinical trials for PATH’s Vaccine Development Global Program.
Chris Victor is leading a study of influenza vaccine in tropical Africa. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

This much we know: people in Senegal definitely get influenza, and studies in other African countries have found influenza is associated with up to a quarter of all severe childhood pneumonia cases. But will a vaccine made for the United States and Europe protect children in tropical Senegal from the flu?

That’s the type of question Dr. John (Chris) Victor seeks to answer. As advisor for epidemiologic science and clinical trials in PATH’s Vaccine Development Global Program, Chris is leading a clinical trial of an influenza vaccine in Senegal to study how well it will protect children in sub-Saharan Africa. Data from the study may help public health officials decide how best to use influenza vaccines in Senegal and other tropical countries.

What’s the benefit?

Chris recently talked about his work as part of our Power of Vaccines special feature, which showcases the broad range of PATH’s work in vaccines—including clinical trials. You can read his full interview there.

Just because a vaccine exists, Chris points out, doesn’t mean a country is ready to decide to adopt it into an immunization program.

“Yearly influenza vaccination may be relatively expensive for developing countries,” he explains. “So countries aren’t going to start vaccinating large numbers of their populations unless we understand better what is the benefit and impact of influenza vaccination.”

Bang for the buck

“Influenza vaccines, especially newer ones, may have the potential not only to elicit protection against influenza strains that are contained in the vaccine, but also to provide some protection against strains that are not in the vaccine,” Chris continues. “The duration of protection may also be longer than one year. However, until we have a universal influenza vaccine that produces broad, long-term protection, we need to develop influenza vaccination strategies that give developing countries the most bang for the buck.

“Until recently, influenza has not really been viewed as a major problem for tropical developing countries. It’s just in the last few years that it’s really being looked at in terms of its contribution to childhood pneumonia deaths and to maternal mortality. But there’s a lot of work to do yet. If much of influenza-related mortality is among vulnerable young children who are dying from influenza-related pneumonia, one strategy may be to vaccinate infants and young children for a few years early in their lives when they’re most vulnerable. Then maybe we’ll have a big public health impact on childhood survival by getting them through those vulnerable years.”

See the rest of Chris’ interview.

Global health quiz

On Tuesday, we asked if there’s a flu season in Senegal. The answer is probably. Data generated by Chris’s study and the Senegal National Influenza Center at the Institut Pasteur de Dakar are indicating that most influenza in Senegal occurs during the warm rainy season from about July to October, but influenza can be detected during other months, albeit at much lower levels.

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