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Shoo, Flu!: Vaccine Science

Surrounded by coughing friends and drippy-nosed siblings? What are your chances of getting the flu this year? Discover how your immune system and the flu vaccine work together to keep you healthy.

Flu virus representation/ CDC / Douglas E. Jordan
Image: CDC/ Douglas E. Jordan

Sniffle, sneeze, cough, sigh. The annual bout of flu has already run through our house. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), anywhere from 5 to 20% of the US population gets it each year. Chills, fever, and a sore throat were no fun at all in our house, but for me, at least, it was a good excuse to lie in bed and read all day.

We had our flu shots, so why did we get the flu? Partially, we may have gotten the flu because the flu vaccine doesn't protect against all strains of the flu virus. Scientists have to make their best guess at which three (or four, depending on which vaccine you get) to include in the vaccine each year, and this year their predictions weren't as accurate as they have been in other years. Nonetheless, getting vaccinated each year can help you avoid a lengthy and unpleasant illness during flu season. Doctors especially recommend flu shots for very young children, older people, and others whose immune systems may not be strong enough to fight off the flu.

Vaccinations and Your Mighty Immune System

Your immune system is a group of organs and cells in your body that fights off germs to keep you healthy. Flu vaccines introduce a safe amount of selected flu viruses (or just key virus proteins) into your body so your immune system can learn how to fight against them. Then, if you are exposed to the same flu viruses during flu season, your immune system remembers them and can fight them off more easily. Vaccines for other illnesses work the same way.

How can your body remember viruses? Great question! To explore vaccines and this amazing aspect of our bodies further, take a look at these student science project ideas:

  • Fighting the Flu: How Your Immune System Uses Its Memory: In this project, students create a simple immune system model to help them visualize how the body remembers and fights off illnesses. Teachers, there is also a classroom version of this hands-on activity.
  • Spread the Soap, Not the Germs: Don't forget that hand washing is an excellent defense against catching and spreading illnesses! With this project, discover what it takes to really tackle germs with soap and water
  • BLASTing Flu Viruses: Ready for a more advanced immunology project? Use online tools to study the effectiveness of actual flu vaccines from prior years.

The Wide World of Medical Science

Pathogens, medicines, and the ways our bodies interact with them make for some amazing science! Students interested in medical research and biotechnology may also want to take a look at these science project ideas and special resource pages:

Making Connections

Students interested in exploring science related to Ebola or measles can also get started by exploring the kinds of projects listed above. See also the Ebola: Understanding the Science of Viral Outbreaks special collection at Science Buddies.


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