Troubling Data out of Australia Suggests Flu Vaccine May Not be Effective

DES MOINES, Iowa -- "Over the past week or so, we have been seeing more positive confirmed cases through our laboratory, as well as we`ve seen a number of patients admitted with influenza over the past week, which is an increase in what we saw previous weeks," said Jeff Brock, Infectious Diseases Pharmacy Specialist at Mercy Medical Center.

With flu season upon us, along comes a troubling article in The New England Journal of Medicine. The article cites reports from Australia, where there have been record-high numbers of laboratory-confirmed influenza notifications and outbreaks and higher than average numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. The Journal reports that according to the Australian Government Department of Health influenza A (H3N2) viruses predominated, and the preliminary estimate of vaccine effectiveness against influenza A (H3N2) was only 10%.

"It is concerning, because we plan for our influenza season based on what`s going on in the Southern Hemisphere, but that doesn`t necessarily mean that our vaccine`s gonna be 100% effective during our season," said Brock. "Viruses mutate, we could see different strains here than they saw during their season."

While it's unclear what the implications of what's going on in Australia are for the Northern Hemisphere, medical professionals here in Iowa still express a high degree of confidence in the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.

"The flu vaccine really was meant to stop serious illness and death," said Patricia Quinlisk, Medical Director and State Epidemiologist at Iowa Department of Public Health. "That`s really what we want to stop. Don`t care so much if a kid has a sniffle for a couple days, and we know that in previous years our vaccine has been effective, maybe somewhere between 50 and 80% of stopping serious illness and death, which is pretty good, because that`s really what you want to stop."

Quinlisk continued: “It may not stop every sniffle, but if you’re someone who wants to not get seriously ill, doesn’t want to end up in the hospital and certainly doesn’t want to die, this is a good vaccine to get and to be honest, about the only vaccine we have right now for the flu. So, you might as well get it and it will protect you to some extent and will cause you to protect your family and the people around you, because you won’t be getting ill with the flu and spreading it."

Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that flu has resulted in between 140 ,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations each year. The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older as the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease.