Digging Deeper Into the Flu Vaccine and Its Importance to Public Health

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There is a sure-fire way for us to gain an upper hand with the flu virus, though. It's simple: get more people vaccinated.
There is a sure-fire way for us to gain an upper hand with the flu virus, though. It's simple: get more people vaccinated.

These experts are the real deal and have access to decades of experience and reams of cutting-edge, up-to-the-minute data. So, it's not like they're just spinning that big wheel on The Price is Right and hoping for the best.

But we're not quite Raymond Babbitt counting cards in a casino, either. Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the flu vaccine's effectiveness based on the odds that a patient admitted to the hospital with flu symptoms during the previous flu season had received that season's vaccine. 

The results have been good, but not great; in the last 10 years, the adjusted effectiveness has varied between 19% and 60%, with an average efficacy of approximately 45%.3 A substantial part of this shortcoming stems from our inability to perfectly predict which viral strains are coming down the pipe. 

As a consequence, the literature is bursting at the seams with ingenious schemes and complicated methodologies for improving the accuracy of our predictions. Some of these attempts might bear fruit, and many others certainly will not — but, at this juncture, and years away from their potential implementation, it's impossible to know which is which. Again, prediction is hard. 

There is a sure-fire way for us to gain an upper hand with the flu virus, though. It's simple: get more people vaccinated. Last year, we managed to vaccinate approximately 59.3% of children and 41.7% of adults.4 These numbers aren't outliers; they've actually been more or less flat for a few years. But, imagine if we were able to get the adult vaccination rate up to, say, that of children? 

Even the most conservative estimates suggest that that would result in tens of thousands of fewer flu-related hospitalizations annually. Better yet, what if flu vaccines were mandatory for all school-age children? The savings on direct healthcare costs alone would easily reach into the tens of millions. 

Obviously, drastically improving the vaccination rate won't be easy. It will require a much greater commitment to preventative public health on the part of our governments and, possibly, a sea change in the general public perception of the importance and efficacy of flu vaccination. But, the health and economic benefits leave no doubt that it's a goal worth pursuing. And if none of that works? We can always try public shaming.

Reference

  1. Vaccine Effectiveness - How Well Does the Flu Vaccine Work? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated February 15, 2017.  www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/vaccineeffect.htm. Accessed July 6, 2017.
  2. Gorman RM. Predicting flu's future, one year at a time. BioTechniques. Updated March 3, 2014. www.biotechniques.com/news/Predicting-Flus-Future-One-Year-at-a-Time/biotechniques-350767.html?service=print#.WWOh5fnyuUk. Accessed July 7, 2017.
  3. Influenza (flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 26, 2017. www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm. Accessed July 7, 2017.
  4. Flu vaccination coverage, United States, 2015-16 influenza season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated September 29, 2016. www.cdc.gov/flu/fluvaxview/coverage-1516estimates.htm. Accessed July 7, 2017.
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