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It’s flu-shot season, and public health officials are urging everyone over 6 months of age to get one. Many businesses provide on-site flu shots, and some hospitals have told staff members that they have to wear masks if they do not get the vaccine. By 2020, United States health leaders want 80 percent of the population to get yearly shots.
For vaccine manufacturers, it’s a bonanza: Influenza shots — given every year, unlike many other vaccines — are a multibillion-dollar global business.But how good are they?
Last month,, in a step tantamount to heresy in the public health world, scientists at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota released a report saying that influenza vaccinations provide only modest protection for healthy young and middle-age adults, and little if any protection for those 65 and older, who are most likely to succumb to the illness or its complications. Moreover, the report’s authors concluded, federal vaccination recommendations, which have expanded in recent years, are based on inadequate evidence and poorly executed studies.
“We have overpromoted and overhyped this vaccine,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, as well as its Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. “It does not protect as promoted. It’s all a sales job: it’s all public relations.” Dr. Osterholm, who says he is concerned that confidence in current vaccines deters research into identifying more effective agents, comes from the world of public health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A bioterrorism and public health preparedness adviser to Tommy Thompson, the former health and human services secretary, he served on the interim management team during a transition period at the C.D.C. in 2002.
“I’m an insider,” Dr. Osterholm said. “Until we started this project, I was one of the people out there heavily promoting influenza vaccine use. It was only with this study that I looked and said, ‘What are we doing?’ ” … While researching the report released last month, Dr. Osterholm said, the authors discovered a recurring error in influenza vaccine studies that led to an exaggeration of the vaccine’s effectiveness. They also discovered 30 inaccuracies in the statement on influenza vaccines put forth by the expert panel that develops vaccine recommendations, all of which favor the vaccine. … (When the vaccine matches the circulating viruses, 33 adults need to be vaccinated to avoid one set of influenza symptoms; when there is only a partial match, 100 people must be vaccinated for the same effect.) It was also concluded that the vaccines appear to have no effect on hospital admissions, transmission or rates of complications. A separate Cochrane review on vaccines for the elderly determined the evidence was so scant and of such poor quality that it could not provide guidance. … Another option for those who want to reduce their risk of influenza and flulike infections may be simply this: Wash your hands more often. There is good evidence this works.