Universal flu vaccination could spur anti-bird flu efforts

Published 19 October 2006

Studies find flu vaccines are not as effective as once believed; no effect on death rates among elderly; universal vaccination closes the gap by stopping transmission from the young; building up laboratory infrastructure now could pay dividends in the future

Ah, the rituals of winter. A new scarf, a ski trip, a flu vaccine. These are the moments of which memories are made. Well, the latter is probably an unpleasant memory, but without it many would not live to recall the others. Every year seasonal influenza kills approximately 36,000 Americans, 90 percent of them age sixty-five or older. Yet studies also show that flu shots prevent sickness in the elderly only 30 to 70 percent of the time, and others have concluded that the shots have no impact on the death rate from flu complications in that age bracket. So what is going on?

The main problem it seems, is that because the vaccine is generally restricted from the young and middle aged (this year the government lowered the recommended age to fifty), the elderly remain exposed to infection from the children and grandchildren. Flu vaccines are created anew each year out of the various strains scientists believe are most virulent, but this is an imperfect system, and the elderly have imperfect immune systems. In addition to giving the aged higher doses, some believe the best approach would be universal vaccination. Although the expense would be tremendous, there would be cost savings in the form of saved work and school days. One Japanese experiment showed that immunizing school-age children could significantly reduce the death rate among the elderly, and epidemiologists are currently awaiting the results of a similar trial now underway in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Encouraging universal vaccination would also set the table for more concerted public health efforts against diseases more virulent than influenza. “Convincing more people to get shots would also nudge manufacturers to make more vaccine, which would help build up the manufacturing capacity so the country can respond as quickly as possible if there is a major threat from deadly bird flu or any other pandemic strain,” says Robert Bazell.

-read more in Robert Bazell’s MSNBC discussion