Getting Shots May Soon Be a Thing of the Past as Band-Aid Patch Replaces Flu Vaccine

The vaccine patch offers an alternative to a needle jab or the risk of getting the flu. Jessica Peterson/Getty

Whenever 42-year-old Andrew McDonald sees a needle, he gets physically sick. There are also panic attacks, cold sweats and colorful language. It's an extreme reaction, one that is surprisingly common—as much as 10 percent of the U.S. population is believed to be needle-phobic. But soon there could be something that will make McDonald's trips to the doctor much less unpleasant.

A team of U.S. researchers have come up with a way to deliver the flu vaccine using a Band-Aid-like sticky patch. The patch has 100 microneedles, each a hair's width and less than one-twentieth of an inch tall, that painlessly dissolve into the skin to release the vaccine. After 20 minutes, the patch is peeled off and thrown away.

Preliminary testing showed the new patch to be as safe and effective as the standard flu shot. The findings from the study, which involved 100 healthy adults aged 18 to 49, were published in The Lancet. "Overall, people—more than 70 percent—preferred the patch way better than the flu shot," says Nadine Rouphael, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University who led the study. She says applying the patch feels a little like pushing Velcro onto your skin.

While the patch will be good for needle-phobic people, it has plenty of other benefits, says epidemiologist Stephen Morse of Columbia University. "It would make vaccination much simpler. Self-administration, slapping it on like a Band-Aid—people can do that from the comfort of their own home," he says.

That might increase vaccine uptake during the flu season, especially among busy working adults. Last November, only 37 percent of adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against influenza, which kills roughly 48,000 people in the country every year. "The reality is that for a lot of people, they're too busy. They don't want to wait in line or make appointments to see the doctor," Morse says.

This close-up image shows the microneedle vaccine patch, which contains tiny needles that dissolve into the skin, carrying vaccine. A majority of study participants said they would prefer to receive the influenza vaccine using patches rather than traditional hypodermic needles. Georgia Tech

And because the patch remains stable in temperatures up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it can be used in developing countries without the hassle or added cost of refrigeration. It could also be distributed quickly, through the mail, during an influenza outbreak.

"Overall, I think it's a very good prospect," says John McCauley, director of the Worldwide Influenza Centre at London's Francis Crick Institute, who was not involved in the study.

The sticking point here: You may have to wait five years for the patch. Further testing needs to be done in larger populations. In the meantime, researchers are working on newer-generation patches with needles that dissolve faster and cause less local irritation. They're also exploring whether the patch can be used to deliver other vaccines, such as polio and hepatitis A.