I walked past my local GP surgery the day before yesterday. Outside, they’re flying a banner which reads something like ‘Roll up! Roll up! for your Flu Vaccine’. Flu vaccination seems to be pushed increasingly hard, especially for ‘at risk’ individuals such as the over-65s. Generally, we’re given the impression that having a flu jab will almost assure protection from flu over the coming months. However, new evidence suggests we’d be wide of the mark here.
Research published recently in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases finds that the most commonly used flu vaccine there (known as the trivalent vaccine) are, overall, 59 per cent effective . The authors of this study concede that this is significantly lower than the effectiveness figures commonly quoted by authorities.
But let’s see what an effectiveness of 59 per cent actually means: let’s say we round up 100 people who have had the flu and had not been immunised. If all of these individuals had been immunised, though, 41 would have got the flu. This may seem like a reasonable result, still, until you start to consider that of all the people who get flu jabs, only a small percentage were destined to get flu anyway.
What this means is that the vast majority of people who get the flu jab will not benefit from it one iota. That’s not a reason not to have it necessarily. But it is something that I believe should be made plain to people before they ‘roll up! roll up!’.
And here’s another thing that came out of the research: For certain sections of the community, there really is not good evidence for the effectiveness of flu vaccine, and that includes the over-65s. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract (summary) of the study:
Influenza vaccines can provide moderate protection against virologically confirmed influenza, but such protection is greatly reduced or absent in some seasons. Evidence for protection in adults aged 65 years or older is lacking.
About this time last year, I wrote a blog post about flu vaccination, which was triggered by a conversation I had with my parents about it. Both my parents are retired doctors but traditionally took different views on this practice: my dad was dead against it, while my mum dutifully attended for her annual flu jab as requested. My mum found she would get a persistent cough after her flu jab (possibly coincidence, but perhaps not), and when we discussed the likelihood of her benefiting in real terms she decided to forgo it last year. You can read about this here.
Next time I see my mum I’m going to be telling her about the fact that we have no good evidence that flu vaccination benefits individuals in her age group, and communicate these latest findings on the effectiveness of flu vaccination too. My mum’s not a political person, but I have a sense she’ll be somewhat shocked. I suspect my dad, on the other hand, will say nothing but sit there with an ‘I told you so’ look on his face.
1. Osterholm MT, et al. Efficacy and effectiveness of influenza vaccines: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Early Online Publication, 26 October 2011