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Will You Get a Flu Shot? How Well Will It Work?

The CDC wants you to get a flu shot before you come down with the flu. How well will it work? In past years, it wasn't all that great.

Every year, public health authorities urge Americans to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot. The CDC sometimes suggests that people call ahead to make sure there is vaccine available. The reasons to be vaccinated against flu are to help you fight off the infection yourself, and to help protect others from influenza. Will you get a flu shot this year?

Avoiding the Flu:

Q. I have had an annual flu shot for over 30 years after experiencing two debilitating bouts of flu when I was a young mother. Never again!

Have I avoided the flu because of vaccines, healthy hygiene habits, eating a healthy diet devoid of sugar and processed foods, managing my weight, or popping a handful of immune-boosting supplements daily? I have worked with children for the past 15 years, so I have definitely been exposed. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, vaccines included, regardless of how effective they may or may not be.

A. We won’t know exactly how effective this year’s flu shot is until next spring, when the data are in. See the list below for data on previous years. Fortunately, the strains of flu that are circulating this year seem to be well-matched by the antigens in the vaccine.

The flu season appears especially bad this year. It hit early and hard. Your flu-fighting advice is quite sensible.

How Effective Is the Influenza Vaccine?

Readers of our syndicated newspaper column and subscribers to our newsletter know that we have generally been disappointed in the effectiveness of flu shots. Here is just one example of our concerns:

Flu Vaccine Failures Are Quickly Forgotten
Public health authorities don’t like to talk about flu vaccine failures. But the ability of the flu virus to mutate can lead to disappointing results.

Influenza vaccines don’t carry the political baggage of COVID vaccines. Most people have not waged war over flu shots.

COVID vaccinations have been over 90% effective. That was before the Delta variant. But even now, the vaccines have been surprisingly good at keeping people out of the hospital and away from death’s doorstep.

We’ve been tracking influenza vaccine effectiveness for many years. Here is a summary of what we have discovered:

Vaccine Effectiveness in Past Years:

2004-2005: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 10%
2005-2006: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 21%
2006-2007: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 52%
2007-2008: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 37%
2008-2009: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 41%
2009-2010: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 56%
2010-2011: Vaccine Effectiveness was:  60%
2011-2012: Vaccine Effectiveness was:  47%
2012-2013: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 49%
2013-2014: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 52%
2014-2015: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 19%
2015-2016: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 47%
2016-2017: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 42%
2017-2018: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 38%
2018-2019: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 29%
2019-2020: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 39%
2020-2021: Vaccine Effectiveness was not calculated, in part because there was so little influenza

2021-2022: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 59%

Overall Effectiveness:             41%

COVID-19 Vaccines vs. Flu Vaccines:

How do COVID jabs compare to flu shots? There is no contest, right? Influenza vaccines are less than half as effective as COVID vaccines. And some years the flu vaccine success rate is downright dismal. At least that is the way we would interpret an effectiveness rate of 19% – 29%.

We don’t understand why most Americans have been enthusiastic about influenza vaccines with hardly any pushback but find the COVID vaccines so scary. No drug or vaccine is perfectly safe.

If you watch any television, you regularly see commercials for medications that can cause heart attacks, strokes, liver damage, cancer and death. We don’t see people protesting about the dangers of those drugs.

And trust me when I tell you that there are very few drugs that have a 90% effectiveness rating. If a medicine is 20-30% better than placebo, the executives at the drug company that develops it will jump for joy.

Will You Get a Flu Shot This Year?

In 2020 and 2021, the US had a very low level of flu, possibly because of the precautions people were taking against COVID-19 transmission. However, Australia had an early and hard flu season during 2022. Australia is usually a good predictor of what we will see a few months later.

Vaccine manufacturers have had to guess what influenza virus might be prevalent this year. They may have guessed right or they may have guessed wrong. It is, as my father would say, a crapshoot.

In addition to influenza and COVID, many American children have come down with respiratory syncytial virus. Flu virus circulates in much the same way. This has led to fears of a tripledemic.

When to Get a Flu Shot?

Public health authorities usually recommend that you get a flu shot by the end of October. That way you are protected for the holiday travel season. However, they often add that even January isn’t too late. We certainly hope that the this year’s vaccine will turn out to more effective than those of past years.

Readers Comment on When to Get a Flu Shot:

Virginia says even a little protection is worthwhile:

“Some protection is better than none! One day of the flu is too much so I appreciate every little bit of decreased symptoms. Medicine is an art not a science.”

Dzrlib offers this comment:

“I am 84 years old and have never had a flu shot. I think it’s because I take 3 to 4 grams of crystalline Vitamin C every day, dissolved in tomato juice. Been doing this for over 40 years.”

Phyllis trusts the vaccine:

“I’ve been so lucky. I’ve been taking flu shots for 30 years or more. I only had a mild case of flu one time. That was around the second or third time I took it. I would never hesitate to take my flu shot. I’m now 76 years old and trust the shots.”

Chris delayed his shot and won’t do it again!

“I’m 71. Two years ago, I put off getting my flu shot because I read that seniors should wait until December so they’d have better protection in February. I got the flu the day before I was scheduled for my shot and was horribly sick for a month.

“From now on, I will get my flu shot in October or early November. In years I’ve gotten a timely flu shot, I have never had the flu.”

Shirley’s husband got the flu even though he got the shot:

“We are seniors and got the stronger dose of the flu vaccine last fall. My husband got the flu in late January and was knocked out for at least two weeks. He was in bed and didn’t eat much the first week. I managed to stay far enough away from him that I didn’t get it.”

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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