It’s the middle of February and flu season is in full swing. Perhaps you’ve already experienced the body aches, fever, and fatigue that signal the influenza virus. However, there is a chance that these same symptoms were not caused by the flu. A family of viruses called adenovirus is also making the rounds and resembles the flu. The adenovirus kills significantly fewer people than the flu every year, but it poses a severe health risk to the very young, the old, and the immunocompromised. Adenovirus is unusually resilient: it can survive longer on surfaces than the flu. Cleaning products that also kill other viruses leave adenoviruses alive.
The military, in particular, suffers high infection rates due to close crowding and higher physiological and psychological stresses, which weaken the immune system. Michael Walsh, a PhD student in Harvard’s virology program, explains that effectively vaccinating everybody against adenovirus would be challenging because there are more than 50 different variations of the virus. The military uses an oral vaccine to defend against the most common strains of the adenovirus, which helps to prevent the majority of infections. However, the adenovirus vaccine can only be administered to healthy people because, unlike the flu and many other common vaccines, the adenovirus vaccine contains live viruses. Although these viruses are weakened versions, they could be dangerous to vulnerable individuals. Live vaccines can shed (“vaccine shedding”), meaning the viruses can pass through the digestive track and emerge fully functional.
The adenovirus vaccine isn’t the only live-virus vaccine in regular use, but adenovirus’s resiliency makes wide-spread use of this vaccine a concern. The weakened virus can travel on poorly or unwashed hands from a recently vaccinated individual to a counter-top or other surface, helping to more quickly spread the virus to vulnerable individuals. It is possible that the adenovirus vaccine might do more harm than good. For these reasons, the vaccine is not offered publicly. The best defense against this virus is still, unfortunately, washing your hands, avoiding the sick, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
To learn more about live-virus vaccines, please consult vaccines.gov and Northern Rivers Vaccine Supporters. Relevant links for both organizations are listed below.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Michael Walsh, a PhD student in Harvard’s virology program, for his input on this article.
Managing Correspondent: Emily Kerr
Original Article: Virus Looks Like Flu but Is Not Influenza
Recent Scientific Article: Adenovirus Type 4 Respiratory Infections among Civilian Adults, Northeastern United States, 2011–2015
Other Resources: Adenovirus Vaccine Reinstated After Long Absence