Influenza viruses cause annual outbreaks of respiratory tract infection with attack rates of 5-10%. This means that humans are infected repeatedly with intervals of, on average, 10-20 years. Upon each infection subjects develop innate and adaptive immune responses which aim at clearing the infection. Strain-specific antibody responses are induced, which exert selective pressure on circulating influenza viruses and which drive antigenic drift of seasonal influenza viruses, especially in the hemagglutinin molecule. This antigenic drift necessitates updating of seasonal influenza vaccines regularly in order to match the circulating strains. Upon infection also virus-specific T cell responses are induced, including CD4+ T helper cells and CD8+ cytotoxic T cells. These cells are mainly directed to conserved proteins and therefore display cross-reactivity with a variety of influenza A viruses of different subtypes. T cell mediated immunity therefore may contribute to so-called heterosubtypic immunity and may afford protection against antigenically distinct, potentially pandemic influenza viruses. At present, novel viral targets are identified that may help to develop broad-protective vaccines. Here we review the various arms of the immune response to influenza virus infections and their viral targets and discuss the possibility of developing universal vaccines. The development of such novel vaccines would imply that also new immune correlates of protection need to be established in order to facilitate assessment of vaccine efficacy.
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