Flu shot doesn't protect seniors from pneumonia

In the Fluzone

Ladies and gentlemen, here they are, your 2008-2009 flu vaccines!

  • Afluria
  • Fluarix
  • FluLaval
  • FluMist
  • Fluvirin
  • Fluzone

And these aren’t just some mix of tired old virus strains with maybe one new strain thrown in. These contain three brand new, never-before-used strains! That’s right – we’re starting from scratch! (Why? Because last season’s strains were a bust at doing the thing they were supposed to do – prevent flu).

And all would be right with the world if not for an annoying new study the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would probably rather you not know about.

Mixed signals

“In seniors, flu vaccine was not linked to a reduced risk of pneumonia.”

That’s what Michael L. Jackson, lead author of the new study, told HealthDay News. And needless to say, that’s not the sort of thing FDA and CDC officials want to hear just as they’re gearing up their seasonal fear-promotion of the flu shot.

Mr. Jackson’s study shows that any benefit seniors do get from the flu vaccine is most prevalent in younger, healthier seniors. In other words, those who naturally have healthier immune systems are less likely to get the flu. So, is the flu shot actually preventing infection, or would it have been prevented anyway?

Ready for the kicker? Mr. Jackson reports that in his three-year study, which included more than 1,170 subjects over the age of 65, the flu vaccine reduced pneumonia risk by a “nonsignificant” 8 percent during flu season, but was linked to an INCREASED risk of 4 percent during seasonal peaks.

Now if 8 percent is nonsignificant, then 4 percent is even less significant. But when you’re expecting the vaccine to offer protection and the opposite turns out to be true, that seems sort of, you know, significant!

Should seniors still get the vaccine? Mr. Jackson saysYES! Even though he admits: “Earlier studies have overestimated how well the vaccine works in reducing complications of influenza.”

What do they know that we don’t know?

The FDA announcement about the 08-09 vaccines contains a surprising detail: Only 40 percent of health care workers in the U.S. get a flu vaccine each year.

Imagine. These are people who have easy access to flu shots. They don’t have to call and make an appointment and then drive to their doctor’s office. And it’s probably available to most of them for free. And yet six out of 10 say no.

So if the vaccine were truly effective, don’t you think all those nurses and doctors and EMS personnel would happily take advantage of this easily accessible protection?

And yet they don’t.

Makes you wonder what they know that we don’t know.

Maybe they simply practice healthy habits that keep immune systems strong, which is the most logical way to avoid the flu and other viruses. You can find useful tips for strengthening your immune system in the e-Alert “Trying to Reason With Flu Season” (3/13/08).

“FDA Approves 2008-2009 Flu Vaccines” FDA News, 8/5/08, fda.gov
“Influenza Vaccination and Risk of Community-Acquired Pneumonia in Immunocompetent Elderly People” Lancet, Vol. 372, No. 9636, 8/2/08, thelancet.com
“Flu Vaccine Doesn’t Protect Seniors From Pneumonia” HealthDay News, 7/31/08, nlm.nih.gov