Tasmanian disease specialist Katie Flanagan continues research into influenza immunity
14 Nov 2018
Influenza is responsible for up to half a million deaths annually around the world. However, little is still known about why young children are far more susceptible to infection.
Associate professor Katie Flanagan is hoping to change that, as part of a groundbreaking research project funded by the Clifford Craig Foundation.
An infectious disease specialist, Dr Flanagan was one of eight successful applicants recently announced for the foundation’s 2019 medical research grants.
Building on her existing research into flu vaccinations in the elderly, Dr Flanagan aims to explore how and why the immunity of children differs from adults.
“We know that flu vaccination is currently one of the best things you can do to protect against flu, but really it is not a fantastic vaccine,” she said.
“Everybody recognises that it needs to be better, as it only provides about 60 per cent protection at best and probably a bit less in the very young children.
“Certainly, the vaccines used up until this year in the elderly were extremely poor and last year’s vaccines had zero efficiency when it was accessed.”
Since arriving in Tasmania, Dr Flanagan has been at the forefront of infectious disease support in the state’s North and North-West.
Last year Tasmania experienced one of its worst ever flu seasons, including the deaths of six elderly patients.
By studying the immune cells in blood and tonsils of young healthy children, Dr Flanagan said she hoped the research would lead to the development of more effective flu vaccines.
“At the moment there really is no comprehensive data on immunity to influenza in children,” she said.
“Certainly, never done to this level and not done in tissues – which is the real beauty of this study.
“While we would normally get blood samples, what is going on circulating in your blood doesn’t always tell us what is going on in the tissue.
“That is something that makes this study exciting in many ways, but also it’s a unique study as a result of that.”
While this year Tasmania experienced a relatively mild flu season, Dr Flanagan said she would like to see a bigger state push to have young children vaccinated.
“I think there is a good argument for doing it, because it will protect against severe infection and we know that of all the deaths that occurred last year – none of them were vaccinated,” she said.
“We have probably have been complacent in the past, but I think last year’s season shocked a lot of people.
“In this state I would say there still isn’t much of a push to vaccinate young children, but that is something we should be looking to advocate for more strongly.”