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Flu Vaccine May Not Be Much Help For Elderly

Wednesday, 28 December 2005 12:00 AM

Flu vaccines may not work as well as we thought for people older than 65, according to a surprising new study from the University of Washington.

Despite the widespread belief that the vaccines cut mortality risk for the elderly by nearly 70 percent, a carefully done study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, shows the vaccines don't reduce death risk by nearly that much.

Lisa A. Jackson, MD, MPH, and colleagues say the problem has been that healthy elderly people are generally much more likely to get flu shots - and that very fact has confused previous studies.

When the University of Washington team compared generally healthy elderly people who got vaccinated to those who did not, they found much smaller benefits for those who received the flu shots.

In fact, the researchers write "The magnitude of this bias ... was sufficient to account entirely for the [reduced risk of death in vaccinated people] observed during influenza season."

The team compared death rates among the vaccinated and unvaccinated elderly people before, during, and after flu season. Those who received flu vaccinations had a lower death risk in all time periods - even when there was no flu going around.

The researchers also looked at 252 people aged 65 and older who died during a flu season and matched them with 572 people who died at other times.

Elderly people who got flu vaccines were 41 percent less likely to die during flu season. But those who didn't get flu shots were much more likely to have health problems and when the researchers compared people with the same health status, they found that vaccinated elderly people were only 29 percent less likely to die during flu season.

An editorial from NIH specialists accompanies the report and argues that we need better flu vaccines to protect elderly people and should put more emphasis on vaccinating school children, who are the major spreaders of flu.

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Wednesday, 28 December 2005 12:00 AM
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