Flu shots don't save lives of elderly, study says
Carla K. Johnson, Associated Press
February 15, 2005
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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 (NIH) 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.
However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 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
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
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 to unvaccinated elderly, Thompson said. Previous
studies that made that comparison have 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.
A shift to vaccinating schoolchildren, the age group most likely to spread
the flu virus, is advocated by colleagues of Orenstein's at Emory in a
separate report to be published today in the American Journal of