Flu Vaccine Efficacy Myth Dispelled

Date: June 6, 2008

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BY CHRIS GROUND, Senior Vice President, Sales, FFF Enterprises

Thinking of skipping the flu vaccine just because you’ve heard that last year’s vaccine wasn’t that effective? If so, experts will likely take you to task.

Experts concur that lower effectiveness of flu vaccine one year doesn’t reduce the importance of vaccination in following years.

According to Dr. Frank S. Virant, who practices at the Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center in Seattle, Wash., chances are slim that last year—which had an overall vaccine effectiveness rate of 44 percent—will repeat itself.

“Some people might be frustrated that they ‘got the flu anyway,’” Dr. Virant says, but they should realize this phenomenon only happens every 15 to 20 years—where the best guess of serotypes ends up being incorrect because of genetic shift of the viruses. In other words, this is very unlikely to occur again for several years.”

Also, last year’s vaccine still provided cross-protection benefits. But, according to Luke Noll, Director of Corporate Accounts for Vaccines and Influenza Treatment at FFF Enterprises, those who are unaware of this might still question whether a vaccine is worthwhile.

“That will be the primary myth and belief that must be overcome next year,” Noll said, referring to the 2008-2009 flu season, which could begin as early as October and continue potentially through May.

Myths are nothing new when it comes to flu vaccines. At the 2008 National Flu Vaccine Summit in May, which was sponsored by the American Medical Association (AMA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a session was devoted to the topic.

According to the CDC, one factor that contributes to a flu vaccine’s effectiveness is whether vaccination programs are able to successfully vaccinate people before the season starts.

Two other relevant factors are the similarity or ‘match’ between the virus strains in the vaccine and those in circulation, and the age and health status of the person getting the vaccine—an important consideration for those with immune deficiencies.

In the 2007-2008 flu season, two of the three strains making up the flu vaccine were not good matches for the viruses circulating in the population, and the vaccine was only 44 percent effective overall, according to the CDC.

Last year’s vaccine was not effective at all against the B circulating strain. But in terms of the A circulating strain, the vaccine performed better, providing cross-protection benefits against different, but related viruses, said Noll.

So “when you talk about the overall effectiveness of the flu vaccine for the past 16 out of 20 years, it was a good match,” Noll stated, referring to the vaccine’s 58 percent effectiveness against circulating influenza A viruses.

In a good year, when the vaccine strains and the viruses are well-matched, the vaccine can reduce the chances of getting the influenza by 70 percent to 90 percent.