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Are Flu Vaccines Really All That Effective?

Are Flu Vaccines Really All That Effective?

New study questions the flu shot's true effectiveness

October 20th, 2012 by Daryl Nelson of ConsumerAffairs in News

Personally, I've never gotten a flu shot and never gotten the flu, but it's easy to see why so many people get them, since there has been a lot of documentation about their effectiveness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people over six months of age should receive their flu vaccinations each year, and annually the government health agency as well as other entities put out strong publicity campaigns that encourage people to get their shots.

But not everyone believes the flu shot is the all-protecting serum that it's advertised as, and although many health experts agree that getting a flu shot is better than not getting one, a lot of experts say people may be putting too much faith in a vaccine that might not be all that preventive.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently said although the flu shot is helpful, there are many improvements the vaccine needs to undergo in order to match its public perception of being completely protective against the flu.

"The current influenza vaccine protection is substantially lower than for most routine recommend vaccines and is sub-optimal," said Michael Osterholm, the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), a research center that's within the University of Minnesota.

"The perception that current vaccines are already highly effective in preventing influenza is a major barrier to pursuing game-changing alternatives," he said

The researchers took this particular stance after examining 12,000 pieces of documentation stemming all the way back from 1936. They also interviewed almost 100 experts on the flu vaccine. (Read news release here.)

Complacency in the system

Others who weren't part of the University of Minnesota study said these new findings shouldn't discourage people from getting flu shots; rather they should put pressure on government entities to improve the vaccine and better communicate the flu shots' true level of usefulness.

"What the authors are saying is that they're fearful that there is complacency in the system and that people think that the efficacy of the vaccine is higher than it is," said Mayo Clinics' Dr. Gregory Poland in an interview. "Therefore they're not motivated to invest, and this will be billions, to invest the billions we need to get the vaccines."

Other health experts have also been critical of the way the flu shot has been advertised to the public as a completely preventive vaccine.

Tom Jefferson, who is an epidemiologist with Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit organization that's involved in medical research, says that after reviewing a number of studies on the flu shot, many of the findings incorrectly indicate that the vaccine protects people from the flu more than it really does, specifically among the elderly.

"We looked at studies on vaccines in the elderly and in health care workers who work with the elderly, and we found an implausible sequence of results," said Jefferson in a published interview.

 "We have studies that claim up to 90 percent effectiveness against death from all causes. If you were to believe that evidence, you would believe that flu vaccine is effective against death not only from influenza, but also from heart attack, stroke, hypothermia, accidents and all other common causes of death among the elderly. That is quite clearly nonsense," he said.

More studies needed

Jefferson also says more studies are needed to prove the effects of the flu vaccine and says it's time for government officials to largely increase their efforts to provide new and updated research about the effectiveness of the flu shot -- because until then, the general public will never be properly informed about how truly preventive flu vaccines are.

"The answer is a question mark," Jefferson says. "We don't know what protection, if any, vaccines offer. I don't think that's a bad thing. Uncertainty is the motor of science. We need large studies to find out. We've known for years that we needed proof one way or the other, and governments have not taken any notice of this. It's an extraordinary situation."

Although researchers at the University of Minnesota would most likely agree with Jefferson's opinion about the government's need to provide better transparency about flu vaccines, Osterholm says people should still get the shot since it's still the best preventive measure we know  today.

"It's clear that influenza vaccination offers substantially more protection for the population then being unvaccinated, that's why I've got my flu shot this year," he said.

Dr. Poland of the Mayo Clinic says that improvements on vaccines and all medicines is an ongoing effort, and bettering the public's chance to avoid and beat certain illnesses will never be complete.

"Urging them [government officials] to do what all of us already feel and many of them, myself included have published, and that's we need better vaccines, he said.

"We need better and better vaccines and soon as we have the next better vaccine, we'll be calling for the next better one after that."