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Interview with Lab Technician Rachael Gerlach

March 5, 2013 - Dr. Greg Walsh
Recently, I was able to talk with my good friend Rachael Gerlach about this winter's flu epidemic that has caused shortages of vaccinations in several places throughout the country. Working in a laboratory dealing with the issue directly, Rachael has first-hand knowledge on how to fight the flu as well as other viruses that can compromise our health.

Greg: So tell everyone a little bit about your work day. I assume you are titrating test tubes filled with horrible diseases while wearing radiation suits.

Rachael: You are about right. The laboratory I am working in studies infectious diseases, specifically Influenza (2009 H1N1 pandemic, H3N2, and H5N1) and Hanta Virus. Needless to say, we need to wear protective equipment when handling these infectious agents. I primarily work with the influenza virus and my day involves infecting both lung epithelial cells and/or mice with the different strains of the virus. I then perform follow-up experiments to evaluate the early events of infection and find relationships between my results and what occurred in the clinical setting. I perform these infections wearing personal protective equipment to make sure I stay safe as well as my fellow lab mates. We make sure to keep all the "bugs" in the lab!

Greg: I was kidding about the radiation suits but it's good to know that you guys are keeping yourself safe in those labs. From what I know of creating influenza virus (flu) vaccinations, you guys try to determine what the most likely strands of the flu will be most prominent every winter and you prepare accordingly. Is this something modern medicine will have to do forever or do you think we'll be able to move toward a slightly different system?

Rachael: The influenza virus recombines very frequently and is the reason there is not an "all-in-one" vaccine for Influenza. Each year we can make predictions on the recombination events that may occur, based on the seasonal strains circulating in humans, and develop a vaccine that promotes our body's recognition of the circulating viruses. However, the virus can also be found in other hosts such as birds, pigs, etc. and can undergo recombination events within these populations.

Because of our potential exposure to these animals in agriculture and other natural settings, we can become exposed to newly recombined viruses within these animal populations. The virus that naturally infects pigs and birds can become adapted to infect a human and this becomes a potentially dangerous situation since the human population has not been exposed to these viruses before. If our immune system has not been exposed to this virus previously, it cannot recognize and react to the invader quickly enough to prevent disease. When this happens, the "seasonal vaccine" becomes ineffective at fighting off the virus and a new pandemic is very likely to occur.

Recently, the influenza research field has expanded research on the "avian influenza" and also "swine influenza" viral strains to help scientists better understand what the virus looks like in these hosts. By studying the virus that infects pigs and birds and comparing that virus to the ones that have spilled over into humans, we can better design a vaccine that recognizes these foreign viruses before they wreak havoc in the human population.

Greg: It sounds like we have some overlap on our two professions. Where you are preparing an individual's immune system to be better prepared for certain viruses, chiropractors are removing obstacles standing in the way of our nervous system's ability to function at 100 percent effectiveness. We both want our bodies prepared to handle themselves as efficiently as possible. The last thing I am going to ask you is to give me one interesting factoid about viruses that many people are not aware of.

Rachael: Whenever I speak to friends and family about the "flu vaccine", many say to me "I don't get the shot because I get the flu from it". That is a big misconception about the vaccine and this miscommunication about the vaccine jeopardizes the public health mission to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Some minor side effects that could occur are soreness, or swelling at the site of the shot, and you may also experience a fever and body aches. These symptoms are similar to what happens when you are infected with the virus but they are actually a result of your immune system fighting the infection and developing antibodies against it. After getting the "flu shot" you may experience the symptoms mentioned above. This just means your immune system is at work developing antibodies against the influenza proteins in the vaccine. After your body has built up antibodies to these proteins, your body will be able to recognize the virus if you come in contact with it (i.e. your buddy sneezes on you) and control the infection, preventing you from getting the disease.

Just a side note, make sure to check with your doctor before getting any vaccine. As I mentioned above, the flu shot induces a response from your immune system. If you have autoimmune or chronic inflammatory disease such as COPD or asthma or have any allergies to eggs, the vaccine could exacerbate your symptoms. If worried, consult your doctor before getting vaccinated.


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