Annual shots of the flu vaccine are not as effective as all the hype surrounding it, according to a new study.
Study author Dr. Tom Jefferson, coordinator of the Cochrane Vaccines Field in Rome, Italy said, "We've got an exaggerated expectation of what vaccines can actually do. I'm hoping American and European taxpayers will be alerted and will start asking questions."
The findings of the study have been published in the Oct. 28 issue of the British Medical Journal.
Influenza vaccination programs have already been established in most developed nations with several developing countries also having influenza vaccination programs in place. The aim of the program is to reduce the number of cases of flu as well as related hospital admissions and deaths.
In the United States, the flu vaccine is recommended for children of ages 6 to 23 months; anyone 50 or older; people with chronic diseases such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes or HIV; and health-care professionals, caregivers and people in the same households as individuals at high risk. In addition the U.S. health authorities have recommended this year that children aged 23 months to 5 years old also be vaccinated against the flu.
Jefferson said, "Recently there's been a real increase in recommendations to prevent what they call influenza with the use of inactivated [dead virus] vaccines."
However Jefferson questions whether such policies are justifiable because his earlier research had revealed that the flu vaccine is only mildly effective in the most critical population, the elderly. In addition he concluded that there was no good science to back new American and Canadian policies of vaccinating children under the age of 2.
Analyzing several systematic reviews on the effects of inactivated vaccines for his present study he concluded that influenza vaccines have little or no effect on many influenza campaign objectives, such as hospital stay, time off work, or death from influenza and its complications.
Jefferson said, "I looked at the evidence described by systematic reviews and confronted it with policy and I found that there is a massive gap. Almost none of the benefits that these policy documents list are actually given by inactivated vaccines or, if they are, they are given in slighter measure."
He attributes this to the confusion between influenza and influenza-like respiratory illnesses, or inadequate surveillance systems.
Jefferson stated, "In most surveillance systems, you actually have an almost year-round epidemic which, in fact, is not influenza. It's caused by other agents."
Another health expert Dr. Peter Gross, an influenza expert and chairman of medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J disagreed with Jefferson's findings.
He said, "The flu vaccine works about 70 to 90 percent of the time in preventing infection in children and young adults and about 40 or 50 percent to 70 percent in the elderly. To say that the influenza vaccine is worthless is misleading."
Gross advised, "My message is definitely go out there and get the flu vaccine if you're an older individual. If you're elderly and feel as though you're getting a flu-like illness, speak to a physician to consider an anti-influenza drug because the vaccine is not 100 percent effective in this group."