Flu Vaccinations Among Elderly Might Not Reduce Flu-Related Mortality Rates as Much as Previously Thought, Study Finds
Flu vaccinations for individuals ages 65 and older might not reduce flu-related mortality rates as much as previously thought, according to a study published on Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the Los Angeles Times reports (Maugh, Los Angeles Times, 2/15).
For the study, Lone Simonsen, an epidemiologist for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, and colleagues examined flu vaccination rates among elderly individuals, as well as their mortality rates, over a period of several decades. Since the early 1960s, the federal government has recommended annual flu vaccinations for individuals ages 65 and older, and flu vaccination rates among elderly individuals increased from 20% prior to 1980 to 65% in 2001, the study found (Ricks, Long Island Newsday, 2/15).
However, the study found that in each of the 33 flu seasons examined, flu-related mortality rates accounted for less than 10% of total winter deaths among elderly individuals. As a result, researchers concluded that higher flu vaccination rates have not resulted in reduced mortality rates among elderly individuals.
Simonsen said, "There is a sense that we're all going to die if we don't get the flu shot. Maybe that's a little much" (Stewart, Newark Star-Ledger, 2/15).
A separate report published on Tuesday in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined the effects of flu vaccinations for children ages five to 18. According to the report, compiled by Ira Longini and Elizabeth Halloran of Emory University, the flu vaccine is more effective among children than elderly individuals, and children are the "biggest spreaders" of the disease, the AP/Miami Herald reports.
Based on statistical models, if 70% of children ages five to 18 received the flu vaccine, individuals ages 65 and older would have protection against the disease without vaccinations, according to the report. Longini and Halloran recommended that the federal government develop a flu vaccination policy that focuses on children (Johnson, AP/Miami Herald, 2/15).
Simonsen also said that, although flu vaccinations for elderly individuals should continue, vaccination of children would provide elderly individuals with the most protection against the disease (Los Angeles Times, 2/15).
Simonsen said, "On an individual basis, the elderly should still be getting their flu shots," adding, "What we are saying is that vaccinating the elderly is not as effective as other studies have led us to believe" (Long Island Newsday, 2/15).
Walter Orenstein, former head of the CDC national vaccination program and current head of a program on vaccine policy at Emory, said that the new research "should make us think twice about our current strategy and (about) potentially enhancing it."
However, CDC epidemiologist William Thompson said that the agency will not revise the current flu vaccination policy based on the NIH study. He said that the study did not directly compare the mortality rates of vaccinated and unvaccinated elderly individuals, adding that previous studies have found that the flu vaccine has resulted in a decrease in winter deaths among elderly individuals. "We think the best way to help the elderly is to vaccinate them," he said (AP/Miami Herald, 2/15).
An abstract of the NIH study is available online. An abstract of the Emory report also is available online.