It’s that time of year again: Flu vaccines have arrived. Last year’s flu season was dominated by the H1N1 pandemic, and communities worldwide were divided on the pros and cons of the flu vaccine. So who really needs the annual flu shot?
First, let’s review the flu vaccine. Available each fall, the vaccine is a worldwide standardized collection of three influenza viruses that are presumed by the World Health Organization to prevent infection by the upcoming season’s likely flu virus. Most people infected with the influenza virus recover quickly, but thousands of people worldwide die each year from the flu – especially infants and the elderly.
This season’s vaccine, recently available at all clinics, includes the H1N1 virus as one of the three strains. The H1N1 pandemic wasrecently officially declared to be over, but there’s a possibility it will flare up again. Although the H1N1 flu never became the deadly pandemic we had feared it might, parents should know that H1N1 was more selectively deadly to toddlers and pregnant women.
The official recommendation from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has actually expanded from last year: They recommend that anyone over 6 months old should consider getting the vaccine. Previously, healthy people in the 19 to 49 year old range weren’t considered, but this new recommendation includes everyone. This has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as well as the American Academy of Family Practice. The AAP specifically mentions that, "Special efforts should be made to immunize all family members, household contacts, and out-of-home care providers of children who are younger than 5 years; children with high-risk conditions [asthma, diabetes, or neurologic disorders]; health care personnel; and pregnant women. These groups are most vulnerable to influenza-related complications."
It’s important to note that the flu vaccine cannot protect you completely from infection. In a best-case scenario, it prevents 60 to 80 percent of infections each season. The Cochrane Library, an esteemed medical review team, has a newly published meta-analysis of the best studies about the flu vaccine for healthy adults. They found fair, but not overwhelming effectiveness for the flu vaccine in adult real-world situations such as missed work days. Their meta-analysis in 2007 found fair vaccine effectiveness in children over 2 years old, but very little evidence for children under 2 years old.
So what is the bottom line? I still recommend the flu vaccine for all my patients and my family, but I’m less enthusiastic than in previous years given the new data. Top priority to get the vaccine should be for anyone who comes in contact with toddlers, especially with babies under 6 months old who are most vulnerable to flu complications but are too young for the vaccine. If you are protected, even partially, with the vaccine, then you won’t pass along the infection to your children.
Need more info? American Dr. Richard Saint Cyr works at IMC and runs a blog, www.myhealthbeijing.com