With summer over and fall fast approaching, the medical community once again turns its attention to the flu season. Millions of people will be vaccinated against influenza in the coming months, and millions more will be urged to do so. But two new studies suggest that flu vaccines may be largely ineffective, especially in elderly patients.
Flu vaccines were developed in response to the need for an effective way to combat the flu and related viruses. There are two ways of administering the vaccine -- the flu shot, containing a killed flu virus, and the nasal spray, containing a weakened flu virus. Neither cause the flu.
The reigning thought on flu vaccines is that they are effective in preventing the flu in approximately 80 per cent of all cases. Two recent studies suggest this may be a vast overestimation. A study published in a special edition of The Lancet looked at over 37 years of research on flu vaccines and concluded that there was no evidence of the high efficacy rates long touted by the medical establishment. In fact, flu vaccines appear to reduce the chances of an elderly person's hospitalization due to influenza or pneumonia by only 27 per cent.
A second research paper, conducted by the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, found that many flu viruses have developed a resistance to the vaccines. These resistance rates appear to be growing rapidly, especially in the regions where they are most often administered -– notably Asia. This is especially true of the cheaper, more widely available flu vaccines, and does not apply to antiviral medication such as Tamiflu, which will be widely available in North America this flu season. Regardless, the study is the first to demonstrate how rapidly flu viruses adapt and develop resistances to antiviral medication.
Those who have looked over the studies caution that this data, even if verified, is no reason for high-risk individuals to forgo their flu shots this season. The study on vaccines and the elderly looks particularly at hospitalization rates, not mortality rates. Furthermore, it demonstrates that in controlled environments such as nursing homes, the flu shot is still 42 per cent more effective than no vaccine at all. This suggests that at-risk older patients should be cared for appropriately during flu season.
As for those of us with children at daycare or school, and who are forced to work in busy and stressful work environments, there is still a potent and effective way to avoid the flu virus –- and that's washing your hands. By keeping surfaces such as keyboards, doorknobs and banisters sanitized, and by making sure the whole family keeps their hands clean, flu season may pass by virtually unnoticed.