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Coming soon: Universal flu vaccine

What's the truth about childhood vaccines? Are they an effective way to safeguard kids against a range of potentially deadly illnesses? Or do they cause autism and other medical problems? Keep clicking as Seth Mnookin, the author of "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear," separates vaccine fact from fiction with his list of common misconceptions. It's information that just might save a life. istockphoto

(CBS) Conventional flu shots protect against a strain of the virus that may or may not pose a real threat. Wouldn't it be great if there were a one-stop shot capable of preventing all flu strains? Wouldn't it be even better if a person didn't have to get the shot every year?

The chief of the National Institutes of Health says such a "universal" flu shot is in the works.

Dr. Francis Collins told USA Today that he's "guardedly optimistic" a universal flu vaccine would be made available within five years.

A few years ago, he said, such a vaccine seemed "completely out of reach." The flu virus is always mutating, rendering a vaccine from the previous year's strain obsolete. But recently scientists pinpointed parts of the virus that don't change - so if a vaccine targets that portion of the virus it should target all strains, Collins said.

At least that's the theory. Some researchers aren't as optimistic.

"I think five years is a bit ambitious, given where we are now," Dr. Arnold Monto, professor of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told USA Today.

Recent research on a universal vaccine has been promising. In February, The Guardian reported that Oxford University scientists had successfully tested a universal vaccine on 11 healthy volunteers.

In early July, researchers at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., also discovered a new antibody that attacks flu viruses, The Telegraph reported. By combining that antibody with one they found two years ago, they hope to create a vaccine that has "the potential to protect people against most influenza viruses," according to Dr. Ian Wilson, professor of structural biology at the Scripps Research Institute and co-author of the study published in Science Express.

Not only that, they said, it can be a "fast-acting therapy" to neutralize the flu virus in people already infected - something that would have come in handy during 2009's swine flu outbreak.

"The ultimate goal is an active vaccine that elicits a robust, long-term antibody response," Wilson said.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more on flu vaccine research.

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