Nov. 20, 2009 - People who got last year's seasonal flu vaccine are at lower risk of H1N1 swine flu illness -- particularly severe disease, a study of U.S. military personnel shows.
Overall, getting a seasonal flu shot or sniff cut the risk of swine flu by 45%. It cut the risk of getting a normal case of swine flu by 42%, and cut the risk of being hospitalized with swine flu by 62%.
Oddly, not everyone was protected. The vaccine was not effective in personnel age 25 to 39. But it was 50% effective in those under age 25 and 55% effective in those over age 39, find Jose Luis Sanchez, MD, MPH, influenza team leader at the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center in Silver Spring, Md., and colleagues.
"This strongly suggests that prior vaccination with seasonal influenzavaccine confers some degree of cross-immunity against H1N1 swine flu," Sanchez tells WebMD. "It's probably not conferring protection against H1N1 infections, but probably is protecting against disease and hospitalization once you are infected."
How can this be? CDC studies show that people who got the seasonal flu vaccine do not have antibodies in their blood that neutralize the H1N1 swine flu.
But antibodies are only one arm of the immune system. Another arm is cell-mediated immunity, in which T cells learn to recognize pathogens. The next time they see these pathogens, these "memory" T cells marshall various defenses that kill off infected cells to limit the spread of infection.
Just this week, Jason A. Greenbaum, PhD, of the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and colleagues, reported that T cells primed to recognize seasonal H1N1 flu bugs trigger immune defenses when they see 2009 H1N1 swine flu bugs.
That, Sanchez says, is his best guess to explain why seasonal flu vaccines protect against severe disease, but not against infection. But why aren't people age 25 to 39 protected?
It may take at least two exposures -- either two seasonal flu shots given at different times, or exposure to the flu plus one later flu shot -- to be primed to fight off a new flu bug.