There is a growing body of evidence showing that this year's flu vaccine is not as good as hoped. This year's shot only reduces the risk of catching the flu by 23 percent, offering less protection than shots in prior years.
This seems like a raw deal: most other vaccines, against things like mumps or tetanus, we get provided way better protection. This was, admittedly, my first reaction. But health economist Austin Frakt had a different, and better, way of thinking about the flu vaccine's efficacy:
@sarahkliff Oddly, any med that did that well would be considered a breakthrough. cc @aaronecarroll— Austin Frakt (@afrakt) January 15, 2015
What if a pharmaceutical company developed a one-shot drug that cut your risk of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or other degenerative diseases by 23 percent? Would you take it? I sure would.
Here's the thing about the flu vaccine: yes, it doesn't work especially great this year (Brady Dennis at the Washington Post wrote an excellent story about the flu's constant mutations that make building a good vaccine difficult). Even at its best, the flu vaccine only reduces the risk of catching the disease by 60 percent. We often think of vaccines as foolproof protection against a given disease. With the flu, that isn't true — not this year or any other.
But public-health officials still urge vaccination for good reason: the flu kills people. The number varies each year, but is always in the tens of thousands. And most deaths happen among the elderly, who tend to have more frail immune systems:
The flu vaccine isn't perfect. But it's without a doubt better than nothing. It reduces the chance that an elderly American will catch the flu — and die from it. My flu vaccine reduces the chance that I'll get the flu, transmit it to an elderly American, and put them at higher risk.
Besides, the flu vaccine is a really easy medication to get. This is true both in terms of time commitment (takes a few minutes at a local pharmacy) and affordability (free if you have health insurance).
@DrFriedenCDC @charlesornstein @sarahkliff low efficacy is still efficacy. esp when there are pretty much no major costs associated with it.— Yevgeniy Feyman (@YFeyman) January 15, 2015
So even though it doesn't work perfectly, was it worth taking five minutes out of your day to get vaccinated? I'd say yes.