Finally, a major US network, CNN, tells the truth about flu vaccine policy:
The flu hasn't hit Europe as hard as it has the United States, health officials say, but when and if it does, don't expect a call for vaccination of the entire population.
Only the U.S. and Canada actually encourage everyone older than 6 months to get the flu vaccine. Apparently, not a single country in Europe asks the general population to seek that same kind of protection, according to Robb Butler, the World Health Organization technical officer in vaccine preventable diseases and immunizations in the organization's Europe office in the Netherlands.
That's because global health experts say the data aren't there yet to support this kind of blanket vaccination policy, nor is there enough money. In fact, some scientists say the enthusiasm for mass vaccination in the United States may hurt efforts to create a better vaccine.
And in the segments of the population that are most susceptible to the extreme effects of the flu -- like the elderly, who make up the majority of the cases of flu-related deaths -- the vaccinations are even less effective. [Or not ineffective--Nass]
So is why is everyone urged to get vaccinated?
Simply put, it's a clearer policy, and some protection is better than none at all, according to Dr. William Schaffner, the chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. He was also on the national committee that made the decision to encourage everyone to get vaccinated. "It was debated by the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for many years, and the indication for the use of influenza vaccine for an increasing number of groups on a piecemeal basis didn't make sense," Schaffner said.
In 2010, the CDC expanded its guidance encouraging the vaccination of vulnerable population groups.
"When you do the back-of-the-envelope calculations (of all the separate groups recommended for vaccination), you are actually already making a recommendation that 75% of the population get it," Schaffner said. "And when it became apparent the issue of shortages was largely put on the back burner, then in 2010, we said, 'Let's simplify this and recommended this vaccine for anyone over 6 months old.'"
It also helps that the flu vaccine is easy to get, he said. Pharmacies offer it. Companies sometimes bring in nurses to give shots to their employees on site. In Europe, only doctors are legally allowed to administer the vaccine, according to Butler.
There may be another economic reason for more Americans to get vaccinated -- one in three U.S. workers get no paid time off when they are sick, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Generally, Europeans have much more generous sick leave policies.
"Although flu can be unpleasant, if you are otherwise healthy, the illness will usually clear up on its own and you will recover within a week," according to Britain's National Health Service website.
In a contrast to U.S. policy, the World Health Organization recommends only six "priority populations" get "the flu jab," as it's called in Britain. These six groups are nursing home residents, people with chronic medical conditions like asthma, the elderly, pregnant women, health care workers, and children from ages 6 months to 2 years, Butler said. They are more vulnerable to the severe effects of the flu or come into contact more often with this highly contagious virus.
"We think the recommendations we have right now (are) a good start," Butler said. "Universal campaigns are quite challenging and expensive.
"We have 53 countries in our region that all have different recommendations based on different studies and evidence, and the depth of evidence in Europe right now is pretty limited in terms of flu vaccines. We would need more evidence that more than these six key, target high-risk groups that are prioritized can benefit... "