Elaine Thompson / AP file
CHICAGO - A new study based on more than three decades of U.S. data suggests that giving flu shots to the elderly has not saved any lives.Led by National Institutes of Health researchers, the study challenges standard government dogma and is bound to confuse senior citizens. During last fall’s flu vaccine shortage, thousands of older Americans, heeding the government’s public health message, stood in long lines to get their shots.
“There is a sense that we’re all going to die if we don’t get the flu shot,” said the study’s lead author, Lone Simonsen, a senior epidemiologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. “Maybe that’s a little much.”
The study should influence the nation’s flu prevention strategy, Simonsen said, perhaps by expanding vaccination to schoolchildren, the biggest spreaders of the virus.
No plans for new guidelines
However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta plans no change in its advice on who should get flu shots, saying the NIH research isn’t enough to shift gears.
“We think the best way to help the elderly is to vaccinate them,” said CDC epidemiologist William Thompson. “These results don’t contribute to changing vaccine policy.”
The CDC currently recommends flu shots for people age 50 and over, nursing home residents, children 6-23 months, pregnant women, people with chronic health problems and certain health care and day care workers. When vaccine was scarce a few months ago, healthy adults under 65 were urged to forgo the shot.
Although the study, published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, looks at data from the whole U.S. elderly population over time, it doesn’t directly compare vaccinated vs. unvaccinated elderly, Thompson said. Previous studies that made that comparison found the vaccine decreased the rate of all winter deaths.
It’s also unlikely that a single study would trigger a change in policy, said CDC spokesman Glen Nowak.
But the former head of the nation’s vaccine strategy, Dr. Walter Orenstein, said Simonsen’s work “should make us think twice about our current strategy and (about) potentially enhancing it.” Orenstein is former director of the CDC’s National Immunization Program and now leads a program for vaccine policy development at Emory University.