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Questioning the flu shot

Helen Palmer Nov 20, 2006

Questioning the flu shot

Helen Palmer Nov 20, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: GESUNDHEIT! Cold and flu season is just around the corner. So is the holiday season which means flying on airplanes or welcoming friends and family to your home. Both are GREAT ways to get exposed to germs. As a precaution a lot of people will get a flu shot just to be on the safe side. Drug companies have provided more than 110 million doses of flu vaccine for the U.S. alone, but some researchers wonder whether widespread flu vaccination is worth the cost. From the Health Desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer explores that question.

HELEN PALMER: All over the country people are lining up for flu shots

RICKI LACEY: So you’ve never had a flu shot before? This is your first flu shot?

That’s Nurse Ricki Lacey at a free flu vaccine clinic in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

LACEY: You’ll feel a little squeeze, stick and that’s it.

People like 28-year-old George Hines are sold on the benefits.

GEORGE HINES: Looking at the list of people they recommend to get it and No. 9 on the list is anybody who wants to prevent the flu so I certainly would rather not be sick.

Health authorities say 70 percent of Americans should get vaccinated to prevent widespread outbreaks.

Carolyn Bridges of the CDC’s Influenza division:

CAROLYN BRIDGES: There have been numerous studies that have shown the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine both in preventing influenza illness and preventing complications of influenza.

But that claim’s been challenged by a study from the Cochrane Library which analyses medical findings.

Vaccine researcher Tom Jefferson reviewed all the studies of flu shot effectiveness and found the evidence isn’t at all clear-cut.

TOM JEFFERSON: In some cases they are effective, at a lot lower threshold than what is claimed, and in some cases the evidence is just not there or is contradictory.

For instance, Jefferson says there’s no evidence the shots prevent hospitalization or deaths in the elderly or the very young. They do cut flu transmission among healthy adults. But he says that barely affects the estimated $9.5 billion that flu absenteeism costs American companies.

JEFFERSON: The benefit as far as working days lost is very slight, .1 or .2 of a day.

Jefferson’s not the only researcher to question official flu statistics. Take the CDC’s oft quoted finding that seasonal flu is associated with 36,000 deaths every year.

Peter Doshi, a PhD student at MIT says 1,100 was the actual recorded number of yearly flu deaths throughout the 1990s. And he says the flu shot’s usefulness has been oversold.

PETER DOSHI: More than two-thirds of the things that your doctor or you would recognize as the flu is not actually caused by the influenza virus.

The CDC admits that the flu vaccine has no effect on “flu-like illnesses.” These questions make the decision of whether or not to get a flu shot more difficult. Still public health authorities are adamant. Vaccination’s justified, cost-effective and safe, they say.

Tom Jefferson has another take.

JEFFERSON: It’s certainly hurtful to the pocket and to the wallet.

Experts say the cost of flu vaccination in the U.S. this year could reach $2 billion.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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