Effectiveness of Flu Vaccines Challenged

A new study in the British Medical Journal has questioned the overall value of annual flu-shot programs and suggested that public flu-shot policies ought to be reevaluated. Dr. Tom Jefferson, of the Cochrane Vaccines Field in Rome, analyzed a raft of existing datasets about the issue and concluded that there is a “large gap between policy and what the data tell us.”

“Each year enormous effort goes into producing influenza vaccines for that specific year and delivering them to appropriate sections of the population,” Jefferson notes, asking, “Is this effort justified?”

Jefferson offers several explanations for the gap between policy and evidence. Most significantly, he cites the tendency for medical professionals to report “influenza-like” illnesses as if they were incidents of real influenza. “This confusion leads to a gross overestimation of the impact of influenza, unrealistic expectations of the performance of vaccines, and spurious certainty of our ability to predict viral circulation and impact,” he says. He also mentions a lack of accurate surveillance systems that can quickly identify the particular virus that may be circulating in a given community.

Part of the problem, according to Jefferson, may be that public officials tend to err on the side of action, attempting to appear as if they are efficiently working for the public health–even if evidence isn’t in their corner. Jefferson urges public officials to conduct more randomized trials to gather more evidence about the effectiveness of these vaccines.

“Evidence from systematic reviews shows that inactivated vaccines have little or no effect” on desired outcomes including a reduction of work or school absences, a reduction of hospital stays, and the prevention of death, Jefferson says. He claims that most studies of the vaccine are of “poor methodological quality” and he also laments the lack of conclusive evidence about the overall safety of the vaccines.

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