Does The Flu Shot Actually Prevent Flu? Fact or Fiction?
Does the Flu Shot Actually Prevent the Flu?
“Winter is coming, so you better go get the flu shot!” is a typical thing you hear around the office this time of the year, right?
Because who wants to get bedridden sick for a few days, with aches and chills, and feel like crap?
Here’s the thing, something I ask people all the time: Does the flu shot actually prevent the flu?
120 million people per year pay the $30 or so to get the vaccine.
People seem to have this idea that taking the flu shot means you just won’t get the flu – unfortunately, that couldn’t be more wrong.
Truth About the Flu Vaccine’s Effectiveness
Here’s what’s funny: we take the Center for Disease Control to be one of the “defacto” authorities on science, and here on their own page, is what they say about the Flu Vaccine’s effectiveness:
“While determining how well a flu vaccine works is challenging, in general, recent studies have supported the conclusion that flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the flu vaccine is well matched to circulating flu viruses.”
… Conveniently there are no studies mentioned or cited, no percentages or numbers given, just a little pep talk that it “benefits public health.”
Some of you may not know that the flu vaccine is essentially an educated, scientific guess at what the strain will be. When the strain “guessed” for the vaccine closely matches the strain that circulates that year, you are offered more protection than where there is a strain-vaccine mismatch.
Let’s look at some actual research on the subject:
In another 2006 paper, Lisa Jackson, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, and her colleagues showed that although vaccinated seniors were 44 percent less likely to die during flu season than unvaccinated seniors were, the vaccinated ones were also 61 percent less likely to die before flu season even started. “Naturally, you would not expect the vaccine to work before the thing it protects against is going around,” says Lone Simonsen, a research professor in global health at George Washington University and a co-author of the 2005 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Let’s take a look at something else.
The Cochrane Collaboration is a highly respected independent research non-profit that publishes summaries of the current available scientific research.
This review looked at evidence from experimental and non-experimental studies carried out over 40 years of influenza vaccination. We included 75 studies. These were grouped first according to study design and then the setting (community or long-term care facilities). The results are mostly based on non-experimental (observational) studies, which are at greater risk of bias, as not many good quality trials were available. Trivalent inactivated vaccines are the most commonly used influenza vaccines. Due to the poor quality of the available evidence, any conclusions regarding the effects of influenza vaccines for people aged 65 years or older cannot be drawn.
Another study talked about the flu vaccine’s effectiveness in regard to seniors:
Due to the general low quality of non-RCTs and the likely presence of biases, which make interpretation of these data difficult and any firm conclusions potentially misleading, we were unable to reach clear conclusions about the effects of the vaccines in the elderly.
The available evidence is of poor quality and provides no guidance regarding the safety, efficacy or effectiveness of influenza vaccines for people aged 65 years or older. To resolve the uncertainty, an adequately powered publicly-funded randomised, placebo-controlled trial run over several seasons should be undertaken.
The Claim That The Flu Shot “Decreases the Risk of Death”
Studies have observed that people that get the flu shot have a decreased risk of death in the winter season. For example, one study done on the elderly found that the flu vaccine was associated with a 27% reduction in risk of hospitalization for pneumonia or flu. Also, it was associated with a 48% reduction in the risk of death.
The problem is that this is a classic “correlation” or assumption made based on the data, and doesn’t indicate that this was caused by the treatment.
In other words, just because these people had a decreased risk of death didn’t necessarily mean that this was due to the flu vaccine itself.
Potential Explanation:People that naturally get the flu shot are already people that are health conscious – they are proactive in taking care of their health. So, yes, obviously they are dying less because they are already taking preventative measures like eating right, exercising, and taking supplements.
Does this prove anything? Not really. But it’s important to see studies this way – rather than how the media presents them.
How Much the Flu Shot Actually Lowers Your Risk
One systematic review of over 50 reports found that, during the years where the vaccine matches the strain of virus (which, the researchers specify, is uncommon), 4% of unvaccinated people versus 1% of vaccinated people develop influenza symptoms.
During the years where the vaccine doesn’t match the strain of the virus well (which is common), 2% of unvaccinated people versus 1% of vaccinated people develop influenza symptoms.
Let me put that in perspective: Based on this research, on your average year, getting the flu vaccine decreases the chances of you getting the flu by 1%.
Now, like any research this isn’t the “definitive be-all-end-all” guide you should base your life on. But that’s a huge difference from what the average person believes about how effective the flu vaccine really is.
In the study I just cited, the authors had a large WARNING at the end of the article, and here’s what it read:
This review includes 15 out of 36 trials funded by industry (four had no funding declaration). An earlier systematic review of 274 influenza vaccine studies published up to 2007 found industry funded studies were published in more prestigious journals and cited more than other studies independently from methodological quality and size. Studies funded from public sources were significantly less likely to report conclusions favorable to the vaccines. The review showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies. The content and conclusions of this review should be interpreted in light of this finding.
“The review showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies.”
Unfortunately, this is pretty common in the healthcare industry.
Let’s do some numbers for a moment – 120 million people buy the flu vaccine annually, and at $30 a pop, that’s $3,600,000,000 million dollars. Three billion 600 million dollars. Not saying the flu vaccine is all about the bling bling dollar bills… but it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume so.
Should You Take the Flu Vaccine?
So let’s cut to the chase: should you get it this year or not?
My opinion: If you get the flu every year, and if you think it will help you sleep better at night, then do it.
I personally have never had the flu vaccine, and I’ve never had the flu in my life. Also, as a healthy male in his 20s, the flu isn’t life threatening. But if you’re older and you regularly get the flu, it might be a viable option for you.
If you’re already taking good care of yourself though, and you don’t regularly get the flu, I personally would avoid it – not because I consider it “harmful” but just because I consider it unnecessary.
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