Monday, December 8, 2014

Oops on the Flu Shots

It is interesting how, when people don’t agree with advice they receive, even very sound advice, they look for excuses to ignore that advice and do what they want.  A common example is the person who doesn’t want to quit smoking and ignores all the scientific evidence while citing as an example the 90-year-old grandmother who smoked all her life and is still going strong.

Now we get news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that this year’s flu vaccine may not be as effective as expected.  The flu virus has mutated to a new and unanticipated strain that the vaccination doesn’t cover. 

This sometimes happens, but individuals and organizations like Natural News are quick to jump in with both feet to say, “See we told you so!”  The Natural News website flashes headlines saying:  "CDC issues flu vaccine apology: this year's vaccine doesn't work!”  They go further:  “For the first time we can remember, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are going on the record, saying the flu vaccine won't work this year.”  This is followed by an attack on the CDC accusing them of foolishly continuing to promote vaccination for this season, being in bed with Big Pharma, and renewing the same old anti-vaccine, mercury-scare story.

A more balanced report comes from Forbes with the headline:  “Your Flu Shot Might Not Work -- But Go Get One Anyway.”  In it they talk about the warning from the CDC that the development of the vaccine in the spring to try to anticipate the flu strains in the winter resulted in a poorer than usual match.  “As a result, just half of current flu cases match the available vaccine.”  It’s a long way from “won’t work this year” to just half.  In fact, the flu shots are never promoted as being 100% effective.  Many studies show the average to be between 60% and 75% depending on the year and the population tested.  One study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that, regardless of this inability to be 100% effective, “[v]accination against influenza has substantial health-related and economic benefits for healthy, working adults.”

In addition, the CDC never attempted to paint a different picture.  They were honest in a posting back in May of this year and renewed that honest approach by admitting their miscalculation.  That May posting is clear.  “During years when the flu vaccine is not well matched to circulating viruses, it’s possible that no benefit from flu vaccination may be observed. During years when there is a good match between the flu vaccine and circulating viruses, it’s possible to measure substantial benefits from vaccination in terms of preventing flu illness. However, even during years when the vaccine match is very good, the benefits of vaccination will vary across the population, depending on characteristics of the person being vaccinated and even, potentially, which vaccine was used.” 

Finally, the flu can be deadly.  "Over a period of 31 seasons between 1976 and 2007, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.”  Vaccines are generally effective as well as safe.  “For more than 50 years, seasonal flu vaccines have had very good safety track records. Over the years, hundreds of millions of Americans have received seasonal flu vaccines. The most common side effects following flu vaccinations are mild.”

Of course, both those pieces of information about the danger of the flu and the safety of the vaccine come from the CDC, and some believe they are part of a big conspiracy to make pharmaceutical companies rich by selling shady products to citizens and insurance companies while adding to their already obscene profits.  Those of us who are not paranoid, though, will continue to get our flu shots even if they are not 100% guaranteed.  The minor inconvenience and cost (often zero) are worth it to be 50% sure.  Although they may be unpredictable at times, behavior really does have consequences.

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