older man with a beard getting a shot in his arm

At the peak of this year’s influenza season, public health officials were panicky. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a flu epidemic in mid-January.

The city of Boston and the state of New York both declared public health emergencies. There were so many patients awaiting treatment that one hospital had to put up tents in the parking lot despite bitter cold weather.

Flu was in the news, and at the end of every report Americans were urged to get a flu shot. Senior citizens in particular were targeted with this message. That’s because older people are more susceptible to complications from an influenza infection.

In theory, the influenza vaccine should have been highly effective. That’s because the experts guessed right early last year when they had to predict which flu viruses would be making the rounds this winter. The vaccine for this season was a 92 percent match with the actual influenza viruses infecting people.

How well did the flu shots work in reality? Visitors to our website (www.PeoplesPharmacy.com) alerted us early to the possibility that this year’s vaccination was coming up short. One woman reported:

“I got the flu shot, as I do every year. Now I have the flu. I went from feeling fine to feeling like a bus had mowed me down in about 8 hours. I started medicating myself when my fever hit 102. I have had fever for three days along with a dry, painful cough, general achiness and wooziness and exhaustion.”

Another person had a similar experience:

“My husband and I both got flu shots (at $29 each) last fall when the shots became available. At the end of January, we were both sick with the flu and spent four days in bed with fever, extreme fatigue and violent coughing.

“We know it was the flu because my husband went to the hospital with rapid heart rate and dehydration and he was actually tested for the flu virus. We have gotten flu shots every year for many, many years. We will continue to get flu shots despite this year’s experience because we are told it is more considerate of others to get the flu shots and not spread the disease. I just wish the shots were more effective.”

The CDC has analyzed the flu vaccine for this year and found that it was only about 27 percent effective for people over 65. Of course, these are precisely the folks who most need the protection that a flu shot might offer.

Even worse, the most virulent strain of influenza virus that caused problems this winter, the H3N2, was hardly affected by the vaccine at all. The match was good, but the shot was only 9 percent effective at preventing H3N2 among the elderly.

We clearly need better influenza vaccinations. Even in a more typical year the flu shots are rarely better than 50 or 60 percent effective at preventing viral infections in healthy young adults (The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Jan. 2012).

We also need more honesty from public health officials. That’s the only way Americans can make informed decisions about whether or not to get a flu shot in the future.

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  1. HRH

    I am hearing rumors that early flu shot’s effectiveness (Sept.) has diminished by this time in flu season. Is this true?
    My wife & I (in our 70’s), get ours as soon as it is available in Fall.
    Now we are hearing that doctors are telling patients that their flu shots are no longer are effective by this time in season.

  2. JA

    I am a Public Health professional and the last paragraph of this article enraged me. We do not lie to our patients or the public. We can only provide information that is available. Your vaccine efficacy data is only available after we have experience with the vaccine. As you well know, the vaccine is developed based on strains circulating in Asia during our summer.
    We were completely correct on the strains this year, which is not always the case as it is a bit of a guessing game. Very quickly it was realized that the vaccine’s efficacy was approximately 70%. This is pretty good given the very short turn around for flu vaccine. After the fact we now know the vaccine was not as effective in older people. The example in this paragraph is actually a story of vaccine success. True influenza generally will last at least a week, potentially longer. Often people who get influenza vaccine but get influenza anyway generally have a lesser infection, only being ill for less then 5 days.
    In closing you have insulted PH professionals everywhere. People in PH generally make much lower salaries and provide care to the most vulnerable populations. The least we deserve is not being accused of lying to our community.

  3. Dr. Judi

    First, elderly people should get the quadruple influenza vaccine, rather than the regular one, as they are less efficient in producing antibodies.
    Second, from what I have read, people who got the flu after being immunized were much less likely to need hospitalization. Hospitalization rates would seem a better measure of usefulness than merely comparing rates of the illness.

  4. Cindy B.

    I never get a flu shot and never get the flu. I catch a cold only about once every 2 years, and it’s usually completely over in about 3 days. THIS year, I was hounded by well-meaning friends to get the darn shot and I finally did. Now I’m kinda sorry, first because the severity of the flu and efficacy of the vaccine were both kind of weak; and secondly, now I’ll never know if I would’ve gotten the flu. My point of pride was rendered moot.

  5. Sherry

    I went to the emergency room when I got sicker than usual with the regular type A or B flu. I got tested for them and was negative. Nobody tested me for the swine flu. I have asthma and this flu took my breathing capacity down to 59% which I found out when I went to a pulmonary physician. When I researched this flu, I found out the vaccine was not very effective.
    I’m on additional asthma medicine to get my lungs clear. Doctors in emergency rooms should also rule this out in a diagnosis. This flu kills a lot of children and elderly with underlying health issues. It is not something to be ignored.

  6. John

    I’m 80 and my wife is 81. We’ve never had a flu shot, & don’t intend to get one. We take our vitamins, vitamin D in particular, 2000 units, daily. If we feel anything, it’s 4000 units for a couple of days. When I got colds or the flu, sore throat, etc., yrs ago, I’d take 2 tablespoons of garlic, finely chopped in avocado on rye every 2 hours during the night. Next morning we were fine. If the garlic is too hot, add more avocado, butter the rye, wash with milk.

  7. Pat

    I have never had a flu shot. I am almost 68, have kidney disease, high blood pressure and had cancer. This January I had what I thought was the flu. I was very tired, high temperature, achy, etc., so I just rested, drank as much water as I could when I really didn’t want any and just waited it out. I was feeling better in about 4 days and in a week I was good as new.
    It’s the first time I’ve had it in years and years, but getting the flu isn’t the end of the world. Sure, people die from it. People die from going to the doctor, too, or going into the hospital. I’d rather take my chances than take a shot that may or may not be safe and may or may not have any effect at all.

  8. HENRY E.

    Regarding flu shots: my wife and I are in our early 80’s and we reside in a senior living community of about 500 residents.
    We both had flu shots in 2012 and we did not get the flu.
    For us it worked.

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