- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

CHICAGO (AP) — 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 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. “Maybe that’s a little much.”

The study should influence the nation’s flu prevention strategy, Miss Simonsen said, perhaps by expanding vaccination to schoolchildren, the biggest spreaders of the virus.

However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 vaccine policy.”

Although the study, published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, looks at data from the whole U.S. elderly population over time, it doesn’t directly compare vaccinated vs. unvaccinated elderly, Mr. Thompson said. Previous studies that made that comparison 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 Miss Simonsen’s work “should make us think twice about our current strategy and [about] potentially enhancing it.” Dr. 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 Dr. Orenstein’s at Emory in a separate report to be published today in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The NIH and Emory papers, one a highly technical statistical analysis of death data and the other a commentary based on field studies and mathematical modeling, come during a season that focused the nation’s attention on vaccine supplies.

As a vaccine shortage loomed last fall, the CDC urged shots only for the highest-risk groups. Most of the 36,000 people who die each year of flu-related causes are elderly and the nation’s strategy has focused on getting shots to them, as well as other high-risk groups.

Last week, the CDC reported that about 59 percent of older Americans got shots in 2004, down from 65 percent in 2003. Based on her research, Miss Simonsen doesn’t expect to see a corresponding increase in flu-related deaths this year, something that “can be seen as good news.”


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