Study: No hard evidence that flu vaccine protects the elderly

After a detailed analysis of 75 scientific studies, a group of researchers at the Cochrane Library has concluded that there's little hard evidence to prove that the annual flu vaccination campaign for the elderly does any good.

The vaccine won't work unless it's particularly well matched to the flu strains in circulation, say the researchers. Some of the elderly don't respond to the vaccine at all, and the most vulnerable often don't bother to get a shot. And the data on flu rates in older people is often badly skewed by ailments that have the same symptoms as flu but aren't affected by vaccine at all.

The analysis drew considerable attention in the U.K., where the government pays about 150 million pounds a year to vaccinate three quarters of the older population. Officially, the government estimates that the flu kills about 12,000 people a year in England. But the Cochrane group says there really are no good estimates available and the government figure is probably far too high.

"As the evidence is so scarce at the moment, we should be looking at other strategies to complement vaccinations," notes Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration in Rome. "Some of these are very simple things like personal hygiene, and adequate food and water. Meanwhile, we need to undertake a high quality, publicly funded trial that runs over several seasons to try to resolve some of the uncertainties we're currently facing."

There's been widespread recognition among vaccine manufacturers that the currently available vaccines are least effective in the elderly. And there are a number of new programs underway to design a vaccine that can protect this patient population.

- here's the press release
- here's the story from The Telegraph