Getting an annual flu vaccine may not save the lives of seniors, and health officials may want to look at other ways to protect the elderly, researchers said on Monday.
No studies have conclusively proven that influenza shots prevent flu-related deaths in people over the age of 65, and some of the arguments that have been used to support this idea are based on faulty data, the researchers argue in the Lancet medical journal.
"We need to find a way to better estimate what the true benefits are," said Dr. Lone Simonsen of George Washington University.
Simonsen stressed that the elderly should continue to get flu shots. But she said health officials should also be looking for other ways to prevent some of the 36,000 deaths that come each year from flu in the United States alone.
"We can probably do more to protect the seniors," Simonsen said in a telephone interview.
Every year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launches a new flu vaccination campaign, citing the research that shows the deaths and the 200,000 hospitalizations every year from flu-related illness.
People over the age of 65 make up the majority of these cases, although some children also die every year from flu.
But Simonsen said that no one has actually ever shown that vaccination cuts deaths from flu among the elderly. She said there is plenty of evidence to show that, because older people have lower immune activity, they in fact get less benefit than younger people from vaccination.
"There is no question about the vaccine working in people under the age of 65," she said.
Simonsen said it may be possible to design vaccines that better protect the elderly — something the CDC is working on.
She said the CDC should also consider recommending more aggressive use of antiviral drugs that can treat and sometimes even prevent flu.
CDC flu expert Dr. Joe Bresee said his agency was considering these and other measures — including better vaccination of health care workers and recommending the widespread vaccination of schoolchildren.
"We know that school children are a big part of community transmission. They shed lots of virus. They shed it for long periods of time," Bresee said in a telephone interview.
Bresee and Simonsen said elderly people may get other benefits from the flu vaccine. Influenza shots do not always completely prevent infection, but they can make the illness less serious.
Simonsen noted that a vaccine now commonly used against several types of streptococcal bacteria, which cause pneumonia, meningitis and ear infections, did not show big effects across populations until it became a regular childhood vaccine.
Experts now agree that the vaccine not only protects children, but it protects the elderly people that the children may have been infecting before.