Flu Vaccine: Don't Wait for Perfect

Oct 27, 2011, 4:55 PM, Posted by

William Schaffner, MD, professor and chair of the preventive medicine department at Vanderbilt University, responded to an article on the effectiveness of the flu vaccine with a quote from Voltaire—“perfection is the enemy of the good." The article, published yesterday in Lancet Infectious Diseases, detailed an analysis of previous studies and found that the most commonly used vaccine in the U.S. is about 60 percent effective—somewhat less than had been thought—and that there are no trials on children ages two through 17 and on adults age 65 and older.

Schaffner, who is also a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America says that while the current flu vaccine isn’t fully effective for everyone who gets it, everyone eligible should get the shot because even in cases where it doesn’t prevent the flu, it can minimize serious flu effects including hospitalizations and deaths. “That’s crucial,” says Schaffner. “A healthy person with the flu can go from feeling fine to very ill in the hospital in just 48 hours.”

People have a tendency to disrespect the seriousness of the risk posed by the flu, but they make a mistake, says Paul Etkind, DrPH, senior director for infectious diseases at the National Association of County and City Health Offiicals. From 3,000 to 48,000 people die each year from the flu, depending on how active the season is, says Etkind, and about a quarter of a million people are hospitalized each year.

Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says the Lancet article is useful for at least two reasons—it shows the variability of the current vaccine and it highlights the need for new vaccines. The CDC is still urging everyone to get the current flu shot as we enter the heart of the flu season.

Two newer flu vaccine versions were introduced this year, including a higher dose vaccine right now recommended for older adults only and a vaccine that uses microneedles to help minimize discomfort from the shot. The higher dose does produce a greater immune response than the lower dose vaccine, and is being tested to see if that translates into greater effectiveness, says Dr. Schaffner.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.