An article titled Johns Hopkins Researcher Releases Shocking Report On Flu Vaccines made it around Facebook about how you shouldn’t get the flu vaccine for a variety of reasons. The article used several dubious pseudoscientific scare tactics but I kept reading. Way down the list, it hit on an idea that looks pretty important. I’ve done some research and I am surprised to say that, in my mind, the jury is still out on the usefulness of the flu vaccine for many people.
The CDC (a usually reliable source) says that getting the flu vaccine each year will reduce your chance of getting the flu by about 50% and it will usually shorten any flu you do get. But then I found another usually reliable source (Cochrane) that says flu vaccines are not worthwhile unless you are sick or a youth between 2 and 18 years-old. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmm. Cochrane didn’t find any real downside to the vaccine so if you’re worried for your long term health, getting it is still the safer bet.
First, here is Snopes tearing apart the article I found, calling it “mostly false.” So that’s not a good start!
In the “Johns Hopkins” article, they write “… a study by the Cochrane group studied hundreds of thousands of people and found it offered zero protection for those three things in the general community.” I tracked that study down here (no thanks to the author, they need to cite their references!!! grrr). This large meta-analysis reported “The preventive effect of parenteral [injected or inhaled] inactivated influenza vaccine on healthy adults is small: at least 40 people would need vaccination to avoid one ILI [influenze like illness] case”
The main conclusion of this Cochrane-backed meta-analysis with lots of participants is that getting the flu vaccine decreases an adult’s (18-65 year-old) chance of getting the flu by 1 in 40, or a measly 2.5%! That’s not worth $20 and feeling yucky for a week!
I went looking for other Cochrane meta-analyses:
Children – The flu vaccine probably doesn’t help kids 0-2 years-old. The flu vaccine helps kids 2-18 years-old.
Elderly – They looked for research on flu vaccines for people over 65 years-old but found, astoundingly, very poor evidence of the safety, efficacy or effectiveness of vaccines for this population!
So at this point it’s not looking good for the flu vaccine for anyone except kids aged 2-18. But the CDC reports the flu vaccine is quite effective! This article reports that it is roughly 50% effective, and works pretty well across all age ranges. Googling “cdc influenza vaccine effectiveness” turns up reports each year of how the vaccine saved thousands of lives!
Is the flu vaccine valuable? Probably, maybe, no. I don’t know.