Saturday , August 15 2020

Newsie – Flu researchers looking for 600 NZ babies for international project

Hundreds of pregnant women in Wellington will be invited to have their baby join a world-first, international flu research project.

Every year, up to 95 New Zealanders require intensive care in hospital due to the flu and up to 70 people die as a result of the flu.

The annual jab offers protection, but researchers want a more effective vaccine design that will last several years.

The $ 54 million project, funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US, is being implemented in three cities: Wellington, Los Angeles and Managua in Nicaragua.

In Wellington, researchers aim to enrich 200 women and babies each year for three years and monitor the 600 children for seven years.

The lead investigator of the WellKiwis study, Sue Huang from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), said the way the body responds to a flu infection may be imprinted early in life.

"It's a bit like once you have flu exposure for the first time you have some … very, very strong childhood memory. When you encounter the virus for the second time it will recall this memory and have a very, very good immune mount. response, "Dr Huang said.

This is known as the "birth effect", and was seen in the 2009 swine flu pandemic. People exposed to the 1918 outbreak of swine flu had strong immunity to the 2009 pandemic.

For the WellKiwis study, today's lead maternity carers and others will ask pregnant women to obtain a sample of cord blood from near the placenta at their babies' birth.

ESR project midwife Karen Daniells said the painless test would provide a baseline blood sample.

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Karen Daniells Photo: RNZ

When the baby is about two months old, mothers will be asked if they are happy for their child to follow in the study for the next seven years.

Children will be monitored for flu-like illnesses. The study team will collect nasal swabs and blood samples to understand children's immune responses to flu viruses and flu vaccines.

Wellington Hospital paediatrician and infectious diseases expert Hazel Dobinson said it would be vital research in a key group.

"The goal is to make sure that we can address what happens to these children and their infants when they are exposed to the flu, to get an understanding of that. And then that might make us able to make a more effective vaccine in the future, "said Dr Dobinson.

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Photo: Supplied

The study could shed light on other issues too.

"We can see if babies whose mothers are vaccinated in pregnancy are protected for longer, and how their immune system deals with their exposure to their first flu infection," she said.

The $ 5 million cost of the WellKiwis portion of international research will be funded by the US National Institutes of Health.

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