The drumbeat has begun. Americans are being urged to line up early for flu shots. The message is that if people act fast to get vaccinated now they will be protected from influenza when it becomes widespread this winter.
This year there are more choices than ever. There are all sorts of shots, including high-tech varieties that are made in cell cultures instead of incubated in eggs. You can get a vaccine sprayed up your nose if you don’t like shots. “Quadrivalent” vaccines protect against four different strains of flu.
Most people assume that if they get vaccinated they won’t come down with influenza. That is certainly the hype, but the statistics tell a different story.
Last year’s flu vaccine was an especially good match for the influenza viruses that were circulating during the epidemic. Experts had anticipated correctly which strains would predominate and there was a 92 percent match with what actually showed up. In theory, this should have provided superb protection.
In reality, however, when the CDC did its post-season analysis, it found that the vaccine was only about 27 percent effective for people over 65. This is a high-risk group that is more vulnerable to flu complications such as pneumonia.
Worse, the most virulent form of the flu last year, H3N2, was hardly deterred by vaccination. Only 9 percent of vaccinated older people were protected from this bug.
We heard from one reader: “I had the flu shot this year as usual, but I got the flu anyway. I am 73 and have heart failure and kidney disease. I had fever, aches, headache, sore throat, congestion and cough plus my eyes hurt so badly I could hardly look at light. I was incredibly sleepy and napped morning and afternoon plus went to bed early and slept till 8 in the morning. Most atypical for me.
“I thought at first it was a cold and by the time I realized it was flu, I was too sick to go to the doctor for antiviral medicine. The worst is over after 10 days, but I’m not well yet.”
Even younger folks aren’t necessarily protected by getting their shot. Another reader reported: “I got the flu shot, as I do every year. And although I have not been to the doctor, I am pretty sure 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 so far, along with a dry, painful cough, general achiness, wooziness and exhaustion. I am an otherwise healthy 45-year-old woman. My husband and 4-year-old son have also had this illness (though they too got the flu shot).”
We hope this year’s vaccination will be more effective than last year’s, but public health officials need to be honest about how well this preventive measure works. Even in good years, the shots fail to protect many of the most susceptible individuals, particularly the very young, the elderly and those with diminished immune response.
We also need better data about adverse reactions. In an effort to encourage everyone to get a flu shot, public health experts have not wanted to dampen enthusiasm. Studies of flu shot side effects have been neglected. The public deserves better research on both the benefits and risks of influenza vaccination so people can make more informed decisions.