By Alison Bruzek
Warning: You may be tempted to use some of the following information to rationalize skipping your annual flu shot. But in fact, you’re out of luck. The message from public health authorities is absolutely clear: roll up your sleeve (or prepare your nasal passages) and get your flu vaccine.
“Just do it now, would be my advice,” said Dr. Larry Madoff, director of epidemiology and immunization at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “There’s always a benefit to getting the flu vaccine.”
Granted, you wouldn’t be entirely crazy for thinking otherwise, thanks to recent headlines like these:
From USA Today last winter: “Flu shots only 23% effective this season.”
From CBS News: “Flu vaccine might be less effective in statin users.”
And on the front page of The Boston Globe earlier this month: “Repeated flu shots may lose potency.” (The story came from STAT, the Globe’s new online sibling publication covering medicine and bioscience, which used the headline, “Getting a flu shot every year? More may not be better.”)
The STAT story reports in its third paragraph that public health officials “still believe an annual vaccination is better than skipping the vaccines altogether.” But its primary emphasis is on a “growing body of evidence” that with flu vaccines, “more may not always be better.”
As one mother wrote on Facebook, “[It’s] very upsetting for someone like me, who has had their kids vaccinated every year.”
The message is confusing, even for someone well aware of the recommendation from public health authorities that everyone over six months old should get a flu vaccine unless there’s a medical reason to avoid it. Flu is no joke: It kills thousands, and probably tens of thousands, of Americans a year, the CDC says.
So what to do if you’re still worried?
To begin with, listen to the author of the study, Dr. Edward Belongia, an epidemiologist at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation. The STAT story notes he still strongly encourages everyone to get their flu vaccine.
As Dr. Belongia told me about his study: “At this point there really aren’t any implications for the general public.” Rather, it’s a jumping-off point for future research. Furthermore, the study was presented as a poster in October at an infectious diseases conference; it hasn’t yet been through the rigorous peer review required for publication in a scientific journal.
The study itself is intriguing — it concluded that children who had gotten a flu shot in two previous years, for a specific strain of the flu, were more likely to contract that flu than kids who had just been vaccinated for the first time.
But Dr. Madoff at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said the idea that vaccines may bring diminishing returns isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around since the 1990s. And the bottom line, he said, is that “the return may diminish but there’s always a benefit to getting vaccinated.”
Or as a spokesperson for the CDC said, “This is an interesting new finding and CDC will be looking into it further. For now, the CDC recommendation for vaccination remains unchanged.”