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Giving greater grunt to flu vaccine



Above:  Dr Kate Edwards, lead researcher

In a world-first study, University of Sydney researchers, in conjunction with the Centre for STRONG Medicine at Balmain Hospital, are hoping to show that ‘warming up’ the body – by doing a short bout of exercise prior to receiving the flu vaccine – could improve the vaccine’s effectiveness and thereby reduce illness and death in the elderly population. 

According to the University, ninety percent of influenza-associated deaths occur in people over 65, but the effectiveness of vaccinations decreases as people age.  In younger adults, vaccination prevents influenza illness in approximately 70 to 90 percent of cases. But in older adults, the effect of age-related immune decline is seen, with protection rates reduced to 30 to 40 percent. 

Lead researcher on the project, Dr Kate Edwards, from the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, says the study was looking at an alternative to the traditional way of improving vaccines, which has been to add ‘adjuvants’ – pharmacological or immunological agents that modify the effects of other agents.

“Developing adjuvants is a very lengthy and very difficult process. Unfortunately because of reasons such as side effects, clinical trials, costs and safety concerns, very few adjuvants actually come onto the market,” said Dr Edwards.

“Changing the physiological host to enhance the response is a new approach to improving vaccines.   If people can activate their own immune systems themselves, through exercise, this makes the process of adapting vaccines very simple, very safe, and cost free,” she says.

Dr Edwards said the method has already been proven in young, healthy people, for whom the improved effectiveness of the vaccine has meant only extra protection. “In elderly patients who really need the protection of the flu vaccine, the outcomes could be transformative.”

“Exercising before a vaccination is very adaptable, it doesn’t cost anything and we can design exercises that everyone can do,” Dr Edwards said. 

If successful, the researchers say this new approach could also have enormous implications for the use of vaccinations in developing countries. If the method improves immune response, the dosage of vaccines could be reduced, making them more available in areas where prohibitive costs now prevent their routine use. 

Information for interested participants:

Recruitment and testing for this study will take place in the Centre for STRONG Medicine at Balmain Hospital in Sydney’s inner west. To be eligible, participants must be over 65 years of age and willing to take part in a moderate exercise task prior to receiving the influenza vaccination. 

Participants must not have a history of vaccine-related side effects, allergy to any constituent of the vaccine (including eggs and chicken); current immune disorder (including rheumatoid arthritis and asthma) or acute infection; or currently use steroid or anticoagulant medication. An initial baseline testing session will be followed by a session when either the exercise or control task will be performed, and the influenza vaccine received. 

Participants will then return at one and six months after the vaccination for blood samples to measure their immune responses. Travel expenses of up to $60 provided.

Interested participants should contact Dr Kate Edwards on 02 9036 7396 or at kate.edwards@sydney.edu.au or Liz Mathieson on 02 9395 2269 



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