Flu Vaccine Benefits For Seniors Overstated According To Study

Several articles appeared in a number of publications over the past month questioning the effectiveness of the flu vaccine for the elderly. One such article in the October 25, 2008 Daily Press from Richmond, Virginia noted that the flu vaccine may not give the benefits that were previously advertised.

The article reports that Lone Simonsen, a researcher from George Washington University believes the skepticism concerning the vaccinations is long overdue. She commented, “If I could have it my way, we would start by going back and looking at the basic premise for flu vaccination of seniors.” In the article Simonsen, a former epidemiologist for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that the flu vaccination rate among U.S. seniors has risen over the past 25 years up to 65 percent in 2007. However, over that same period of time, hospitalizations and deaths caused by flu or pneumonia have declined only marginally in the 65-and-over population.

The article references a study published in the August 2, 2008 scientific Journal, Lancet. In that study researchers looked at the cases of 3,519 patients older than 65 who had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia either just prior to, or during the 2000-2002 flu season. The results of that study showed that those who had been immunized against flu were no less likely to develop pneumonia requiring hospitalization than those who had not been vaccinated.

A second study published in the June 2008 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also reached the same conclusion. The author of that study reported that deaths due to flu in their study showed that 8% had been vaccinated while 15% had not. However, he noted that this difference was not due to the vaccination but rather to what he called the “healthy user effect”. This was described in the article as, “Seniors who get vaccinated against flu tend to be younger, healthier, more active and better able to take care of themselves.”

The conclusion of the study in the Lancet stated, “The effect of influenza vaccination on the risk of pneumonia in elderly people during influenza seasons might be less than previously estimated.” Likewise the conclusion of the study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine stated, “Previous observational studies may have overestimated mortality benefits of influenza vaccination.”