The influenza vaccine has been a scientific, medical, and epidemiological sacred cow for a while now. Every respectable person in any of these fields will tell you that it is the best way to prevent influenza each and every year. I agree. However, I agree because it is the best we have while knowing that it is not the best we could have.
A report written last year by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) came to several conclusions about the influenza vaccines that we use today:
“Among the findings was the observation that the injected and the nasal spray influenza vaccines provide different levels of protection based on age. For the injected influenza vaccine, the group found “1) evidence of moderate protection (pooled estimate of 59%) for healthy adults 18 to 64 years of age, (2) inconsistent evidence of protection in children age 2 to 17 years, and (3) a paucity of evidence for protection in adults 65 years of age and older.” With regard to the nasal spray influenza vaccine, the group found “(1) evidence of high protection (pooled estimate of 83%) for young children 6 months to 7 years of age, (2) inconsistent evidence of protection in adults 60 years of age and older, and (3) a lack of evidence for protection in individuals between 8 and 59 years of age.” Another finding was that the perception of the vaccine’s efficacy (the reduction in the number of cases of the disease) has kept new influenza vaccines from being developed.”
(Confession: I wrote that article on “History of Vaccines.”)
As you can see, based on some very good evidence compiled by a bunch of very good researchers, the flu vaccine is good, but it’s not as good as it can be. It certainly is not bad, deadly, or useless, like many anti-vaccine people and groups would have you believe. But even saying that the vaccine wasn’t good enough raised some eyebrows among my colleagues in the world of public health. The sacred cow was being “attacked,” except that it wasn’t. What the report and those of us who agree with it are saying is that we need to stop being complacent about the sacred cow and demand better from it.
The technology that we use to make the vaccine is antiquated. Chicken eggs? Really? Yes, there are new flu vaccine technologies coming online, but they’re not happening as fast as they could.
There is nothing wrong with saying that we can improve on something that works. What is wrong is to be happy with the status quo.
I’m never happy with the status quo, and neither should my colleagues. If we can do better, we must.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.