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Behind Our Ambivalence About Flu Vaccines

November 9, 2012

By Amy M. Collins, editor

Influenza virus particle/CDC

Tis the season to start thinking about getting the flu vaccination. Every year I consider doing so, but due to my own personal vaccine angst I usually decide to just take my chances (while simultaneously lecturing elderly family members to make sure they get theirs, of course).  Working in Manhattan, with the vaccine available at most pharmacies and even vaccine access through work, gives me very little reason to forgo vaccination. And my theory that I am young and strong and can brave illness gets weaker as I pass the point of being able to comfortably claim youth. Riding the subway every day amid a festival of germs reminds me that I should know better.

The vaccine has caused a stir over the past few years: during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, people worried about whether or not to get the new combined vaccine, and the question of mandatory vaccination for health care workers remains a hot topic even now.

But a new report, The Compelling Need For Game-Changing Influenza Vaccines, released by scientists at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, suggests that the flu vaccine may not be as effective as it is touted to be. According to the report, influenza vaccinations provide only modest protection for healthy young and middle-aged adults, and little if any protection for those 65 and older—those who are most likely to contract the illness and suffer its complications. In addition, the report’s authors concluded that federal vaccination recommendations are based on inadequate evidence and poorly executed studies.

With as many as 49,000 Americans dying from influenza each year, approximately 90% of them elderly, should the report matter to those on the fence about getting vaccinated? Not according to Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of epidemiology and prevention in the CDC’s influenza division, who was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Does it work as well as the measles vaccine? No, and it’s not likely to. But the vaccine works.” And the risk of being on the safe side and getting the vaccination appears to be quite low—the report acknowledges that currently licensed influenza vaccines in the United States are among the safest of all available vaccines.

The report ends by issuing an urgent call for improved vaccines: “novel-antigen game-changing seasonal and pandemic influenza vaccines that have superior efficacy and effectiveness compared with current vaccines are urgently needed.” These game-changing vaccines, says the report, must demonstrate increased efficacy and effectiveness for populations at increased risk for severe influenza morbidity and mortality.

So, will the report make a difference to nurses’ recommendations to patients this season, or affect their own decision about whether or not to get vaccinated? Will it influence the ongoing debate about mandatory vaccination for health care workers? For the record, it didn’t for me. At my yearly check-up, the flu vaccine was strongly recommended. The American Nurses Association continues to urge people to get vaccinated as part of their Unite to Fight the Flu initiative.

The report is not saying not to get vaccinated, just that it may not work as well as we’d hoped, and knowing this isn’t a deal breaker for me. So now I just have to get over my vaccine angst and take the plunge!

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3 comments

  1. I, too, have misgivings about the flu vaccine. I try to eat my veggies and get exercise and I’m lucky to be one of those who doesn’t get sick (knock, knock on wood)… I got my flu shot yesterday. As a nurse, I feel a responsibility to prevent spread of the virus to those susceptible to it. It didn’t even hurt… (much)!

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  2. it is hard not to have this angst with all the misinformation and other non evidenced based medicine out there on them, but you are doing the right thing in not letting the famous argument ‘it doesn’t work perfectly so it isn’t worth it’ stop you from getting it. take the plunge!

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  3. Remember that ithe vaccine works better on people less than 65 years old and that alone may prevent you from passing it on to an elderly relative or infant less thasn 6 months old who is more likely to die from the virus.

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