UConn researchers trying to help vulnerable population better protect themselves from the flu

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FARMINGTON, Conn. (WTMH) – No need to remind Zofia Popek to get the flu shot. She gets it done every year.

“I don’t get the flu at all,” Zofia says.

But not everyone gets the vaccine aimed at a number of different strains of the flu.

“Even in a bad year,” says Dr. Kevin Dieckhaus, “you’re going to have some effect as well and so really the recommendation is to get it because there is going to be some positive effect.”

Still, is it effective for patients like Zofia later in the flu season?

“The general thought is probably so but it’s not entirely known,” says Dr. Dieckhaus, who is Chief of Infectious Diseases at UConn Health.

A research lab at UConn Center on Aging is trying to get a clearer picture for a huge population extremely vulnerable to the flu, the 65-year-old plus crowd.

“What we are looking at is how older people respond to the flu vaccine differently than younger people,” says co-lead study investigator Dr. Laura Haynes, “And then how can we restore the response in older people to that of younger people so they are more protected.”

An earlier study also conducted here confirmed a much weaker response.

Dr. Haynes says, “Specific t-cell populations in older people don’t function as well in response to the flu vaccine as those in younger patients.”

Researchers were able to successfully boost that response in a lab dish.

“What we are trying to do now,” she explains, “is to really understand at the genetic level, what genes are turning on in the old t-cells to make them work better.”

The goal is to help older adults who are living longer to live healthier.

Dr. Haynes says the optimum time to get the flu shot is between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

“If you can’t wait.” she says, “and you have to get it now, get it now because it’s better than not getting it at all.”

The flu shot is recommended for everyone six months and older. Hundreds of people die every year from complications of the flu.

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