Retired microbiologist stresses importance of vaccination in upcoming lecture
Flu shots don’t have to be perfect to work.
That’s the word from Dr. Bruce A. Phillips, a retired Santa Barbara microbiologist who urges people to get vaccinated.
“Is the match (for a vaccine) always perfect? No. Do they have to be perfect? No,” Dr. Phillips, 80, who specialized in virology, or the study of viruses, told the News-Press at his Santa Barbara home. “They have to be good enough that the vaccine elicits an immune response that is significantly protected.”
Dr. Phillips will give more details in “Influenza: It’s Going Viral,” his talk immediately following the annual meeting of the Friends of the Goleta Valley Library at 2 p.m. Sunday at the library, 500 N. Fairview Ave., Goleta.
“I’ll be talking about the history (of the flu) and will make a mention of the famous 1918-1919 pandemic that circled the globe and killed a lot of people,” Dr. Phillips said about the free PowerPoint presentation.
“I will talk a little bit about how viruses behave and a little bit about how our immune systems cope with them,” he said. “That’s the prelude to how vaccines are concocted, why they work and why they sometimes don’t work really well, what kinds of treatments are available and what you can to do prevent it (the flu).
“Finally, I’ll look into my very cloudy crystal ball and try to discern what’s likely to come in the future,” Dr. Phillips said.
The Chicago native brings a lifetime of expertise to the subject.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology at the University of Illinois in 1960. He received a master’s and doctorate in microbiology in 1963 and 1967, respectively, at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Phillips worked as an instructor/assistant professor, associate professor and professor from 1968 to 1999 at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, except for 1979-80 when he was a visiting scientist at the University of Cambridge.
The microbiologist said flu vaccines are an educated guessing game.
“Basically, the decision to make 130 million-plus doses in this country has to be made in February and March for delivery in the fall and winter,” Dr. Phillips said. “You have to survey all the viruses on the street and make a decision on what’s likely to be there six months later.”He explained that involves research around the country and the world.”Sometimes the predictions, which at best are educated guesses, come out very well and the vaccine is perhaps 60 or 70 percent effective,” Dr. Phillips said.
“Last (season), it was 15 percent effective because the virus on the street was significantly different than the virus used to make the vaccine,” he said.
An estimated 80,000 Americans died from the flu and its complications during the 2017-2018 season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Last (season) was bad, but was it (the vaccine) a waste of time?” Dr. Phillips said. “No. It is challenging to say how many lives it saved.”
Dr. Phillips added that the vaccine shortened the duration and severity of symptoms for those who got the flu.
In the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons, the vaccines have protected against two Type A influenzas — H1N1 and H3N2 strains — and a Type B/Victoria influenza strain. They are strains that research shows will be common among the American population, and people can get the flu from those viruses.
This season, the vaccine was updated to have a better match for circulating viruses, according to the CDC. The H3N2 component and last season’s Type B/Victoria component were revised.
In California, 75 people died from the flu between Sept. 30 and Jan. 12, according to the California Public Health Department, which reports an increase in flu activity.
The CDC said flu activity remains “elevated” across the U.S.
So far, 16 pediatric deaths nationally related to the flu have been reported for this season, according to the CDC, which hasn’t reported a number for the adult deaths.
Dr. Phillips said research is exploring how to develop vaccines that attack the flu virus at multiple points for more effective prevention.
In addition to getting a vaccine, people should wash their hands often and avoid sick people, Dr. Phillips said.He also recommended wearing masks. “They do this in China all the time when there’s an epidemic.”
Many people struggle with the question of whether they have the flu or a cold. The latter affects your head.
“If it’s here on down (below the head) and everywhere else, it’s the flu,” Dr. Phillips said. He explained the flu is both a lower respiratory infection and a systemic infection that causes muscle aches and pains and fevers.
If you get the flu, stay home and rest and not infect others, Dr. Phillips said. “If it gets really bad, you need to call a physician or, if necessary, be admitted to a hospital.”
Antibiotics aren’t effective treatments against the flu, he said, but noted antibiotics can treat bacterial infections that strike during the flu, such as pneumonia. He said doctors also prescribe antibiotics to prevent bacterial infections in patients who are at risk.
Dr. Phillips noted antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) effectively treat the flu if used within 48 hours of the symptoms.
Tamiflu is FDA-approved for those who are 2 weeks old or older.
The FDA approved Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil) in October for treatment of influenza types A and B for patients 12 and older who have shown symptoms for no more than 48 hours. Tamiflu’s advantage over Xofluza is that it can be used as a preventative measure. But Xofluza requires only one dose in the treatment, unlike Tamiflu, according to Roni Shye, a pharmacist posting at www.goodrx.com, who also noted another difference: Tamiflu can be hard on the stomach; Xofluza isn’t.
“This novel drug provides an important, additional treatment option,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a statement at www.fda.gov. But Dr. Gottlieb, a physician, added, “While there are several FDA-approved antiviral drugs to treat flu, they’re not a substitute for yearly vaccination.”
The CDC noted it’s not too late to get vaccines to protect against the current flu season (the flu typically peaks from December to February), and Dr. Phillips stressed their importance.
“There isn’t a whole lot you can do except vaccination,” he said. “There’s no question that’s the best way to protect yourself.”
Retired Santa Barbara microbiologist Bruce A. Phillips will give a free talk, “Influenza: It’s Going Viral,” immediately after the annual meeting of the Friends of the Goleta Valley Library at 2 p.m. Sunday at the library, 500 N. Fairview Ave., Goleta.