UAB researcher Richard Whitley, M.D., president-elect of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), recently was tapped to serve on the Advisory Council for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) through 2012.
The council advises the institute’s director on research initiatives and programs.

UAB researcher Richard Whitley is president-elect of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“Training, research and expert care is crucial to solving many of the infectious disease problems we face today,” Whitley says. “The council’s input is one of the early steps in working toward solutions, and its collaborative nature guarantees the federal research agenda is well-informed.”

Whitley joined the faculty of the UAB School of Medicine in 1976 after completing an internship, residency and fellowship here. He is a professor of pediatrics, microbiology, medicine and neurosurgery and is vice-chair of the Department of Pediatrics. He also co-directs the Center for Emerging Infections and Emergency Preparedness and is a renowned researcher on the antiviral therapies designed to fight infections in children and adults.

Whitley recently spoke to the UAB Reporter about the coming influenza season and how people should be preparing for it.

Q. How severe is the influenza or flu season expected to be in our area this year?
A.  It is difficult to predict the severity of influenza from one year to the next. What we can say is that the current vaccine provides an excellent match for the circulating strains of influenza expected in North America this winter.  However, as it relates to antiviral use, we are beginning to detect resistance to the most popular of the neuraminidase inhibitors.

Q. Will new strains of influenza circulate this season?
A. So far, influenza in the United States has been light; so it is too early to tell.

Q. Explain about the vaccine matching up with the circulating viruses this year.
A. It matches up extremely well. We’ve seen no deviations of strains from what is in the vaccine. For this year, it’s a 100 percent match. In other years, that hasn’t always been the case. The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration work very hard every year to make sure the vaccine matches up with the virus. Last year was a bad year in that regard, but that was the worst year we’ve had in a long time. We expect this year’s vaccine to be very effective.  If you have not been immunized there still is time to get vaccinated.

Q. How can the vaccine provide protection even if it ultimately is not a good match?
A. It’s usually a slight antigenic drift. It’s not a huge shift that we would worry about as would occur with a pandemic. Even if the vaccine isn’t a perfect match, your body is still going to make influenza antibodies that are very similar to the strain that is circulating. It will give you some protection, even if it’s not as much as you would want.

Q. In addition to the vaccine, what other actions can people take to protect themselves and their family against the flu this season?
A. Certainly, excellent personal hygiene can go a long way to prevent influenza infections, including covering your cough, washing your hands, staying away from crowds if you are sick, etc.  In addition, if you become infected with influenza, the antiviral drugs are excellent therapeutics. Zanamivir (Relenza) and Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) are the drugs most frequently talked about in terms of treating patients. We usually prescribe Oseltamivir because it’s orally bioavailable and it doesn’t have to be inhaled. It works quite well.