Does the Flu Shot Work?

flushotWhy You Probably Don't Need a Flu Shot

A lot of you must have noticed by now that every fall there’s a flu scare—it’s the wrong strain of flu in the vaccination, or it’s a new, more virulent flu, or this year it was a shortage of the flu vaccine. The media eats up the scare value and panicky people stand in line for hours to get their shots.

First, let’s put flu vaccinations in perspective. What’s the worst that could happen if you get the flu? You could die. However, the chances of a healthy, middle-aged adult dying from the flu are astronomically small. There were only 272 flu/pneumonia-related deaths among people ages 5 to 49 between late 1990 and early 1998. During that same time period, about three times more people were struck by lightning. Furthermore, a healthy adult who is vaccinated still has about a 50-50 chance of getting the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lumps together mortality (death) statistics for the flu and pneumonia, but even at that, more than 90 percent of flu and pneumonia-related deaths occur in people over the age of 65. Your risk of dying from illness related to the flu rises dramatically as you age—but this is complicated by the fact that most people that age have other underlying conditions, such as diabetes, heart and circulatory diseases, and significantly decreased immune function. Even at that, the estimated number of people over the age of 50 who die from flu-related illness and/or pneumonia each year is around 58, and over the age of 65 the number is about 915. A flu shot reduces the risk of getting the flu in the elderly by 10 to 30 percent, depending on which study you read.

How about kids? Among children in the U.S. age less than one year (the flu shot is not recommended for children under six months) to four years old, there were an estimated 38 pneumonia/influenza-caused deaths reported between late 1990 and early 1998. That’s an average of 4.75 deaths a year.

The very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems, who supposedly need the flu vaccination the most, are the ones least likely to be able to mount a strong enough antibody response to fight off the flu. In other words, the flu shot is least effective in the populations who need it most.

Now that we can safely assume that your chances of dying of the flu are very small unless you’re among the frail elderly (and even then the flu shot protects you only 10 to 30 percent of the time), what’s really at issue is getting sick. That’s unpleasant and it’s a nuisance. Drink warming herbal teas and soups, stock up on kleenex, and hunker down for a few days. If you want to play the Pollyanna game and find something good in the flu, according to Philip Incao, M.D. there’s nothing like a few days of fever to cleanse the body and upgrade and reinvigorate the immune system.

And by the way, flu season is just getting underway, but so far the CDC reports a “very low” incidence of flu outbreaks.