U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Large-scale immunization has profoundly impacted control of many infectious diseases such as measles and smallpox because of the ability of vaccination campaigns to maintain long-term herd immunity and, hence, indirect protection of the unvaccinated. In the case of human influenza, such potential benefits of mass vaccination have so far proved elusive. The central difficulty is a considerable viral capacity for immune escape; new pandemic variants, as well as viral escape mutants in seasonal influenza, compromise the buildup of herd immunity from natural infection or deployment of current vaccines. Consequently, most current influenza vaccination programs focus mainly on protection of specific risk groups, rather than mass prophylactic protection. Here, we use epidemiological models to show that emerging vaccine technologies, aimed at broad-spectrum protection, could qualitatively alter this picture. We demonstrate that sustained immunization with such vaccines could--through potentially lowering transmission rates and improving herd immunity--significantly moderate both influenza pandemic and seasonal epidemics. More subtly, phylodynamic models indicate that widespread cross-protective immunization could slow the antigenic evolution of seasonal influenza; these effects have profound implications for a transition to mass vaccination strategies against human influenza, and for the management of antigenically variable viruses in general.