True or false? Last year’s flu vaccine was a complete failure.
False. The truth is, last year’s flu shot was 44 percent effective in preventing the flu in the general population and about 54 percent effective in preventing the flu in healthy people, according to Dr. Anthony Fiore, a medical epidemiologist with the Influenza Division of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I don’t think it was a failure. One of our goals is to prevent serious illness and we did that in 50 percent of people,” Fiore told FOXNews.com. “We didn’t hit it right on the spot, but getting it still wasn’t a waste of time. It’s still undoubtedly the best way to prevent flu-related illness and death.”
There are few who would disagree with Fiore’s assessment of the flu shot. Influenza and its related complications hospitalize about 200,000 people and kill some 36,000 people each year in the U.S.
“It’s a serious disease,” said Dr. Tyra Bryant-Stephens, speaking at CDC-sponsored media roundtable discussion on the flu held Wednesday in New York City. “Flu-related complications cause death, 100 small children die each year. That may sound like a small number, but the death of even one child is too many.”
The CDC recommends the everyone should get the flu shot, but it is especially important for children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years old be vaccinated. Americans over the age of 65 also should be vaccinated, as should anyone who cares for people age 18 and under or age 65 and older.
Despite last year’s shortcomings, the experts who decide which three strains of influenza go into the vaccination each year have a pretty good track record: 16 of the last 19 flu seasons have had well-matched vaccines. In a well-matched year, the vaccine is between 70 and 90 percent effective.
Fiore said initial indicators show that this year’s flu vaccine is a good match for the strains that have presented worldwide.
“We’re getting better and better at predicting these things each year,” he said. “We’re looking at more and more viruses from more and more places in the world. Tokyo, Australia, every country around the world, even poorer countries, have influenza labs where they can isolate the viruses and pass them along to us to sequence them.”
The biggest stumbling block for scientists is that the virus strains used in the flu vaccine must be decided by February of each year in order to give manufacturers sufficient time to make the more than 100 million doses needed for the coming fall and winter months.
“There is a lot of time between February and September for a new strain to surface and by then it’s too late, the vaccine is already made,” he said. “But we’re working on better ways to make the vaccine too. So, in a few years, we may be able start making it in May, rather than February, which would give us more time to get it right.”