Back in January we first brought you the important news that getting a flu shot every year is extremely helpful in keeping vulnerable seniors from being hospitalized with dangerous influenza. Now with the flu season ramping up, as a service to our AgingOptions blog readers, we felt it was time to revisit the story.
Flu Vaccines Not Always Effective – but Are They Worth It?
Last year was a tough flu season, and in spite of all their efforts the health experts who decide what types of vaccines to manufacture appear to have made some poor guesses. As this Newsweek article from early 2018 explained, “Every year, scientists must make an educated guess about what virus is likely to be the one that makes people sick. This approach has obvious downsides.” In the words of one expert on infectious diseases, “We’re constantly trying to play a catch-up game.”
How did they do last winter? Not very well. We found one statement on the HealthLine website that quoted very poor rates of effectiveness against last year’s prevalent H3N2 flu strain: overall the vaccine did its job just 25 percent of the time. For those aged 65 and older, the vaccine was only 17 percent effective, and among older children and adults under 65, the effectiveness was even worse. A casual reading of those depressing statistics might cause someone to ask, “Why get a flu shot if I’m probably likely to get the flu anyway? Does that poor performance mean getting a flu shot is pointless?”
Getting a Flu Vaccine Can Help Avoid Dangerous Illness
Absolutely not, states an important article that also appeared last winter on the website HealthDay. In fact, quite the opposite is true: even if the 2019 flu vaccine is a mismatch with this year’s strain of flu – the same thing that happened last year – there is strong evidence that annual flu shots repeated over multiple consecutive years help keep vulnerable seniors out of the hospital. As the HealthDay article reports, “New research shows that for older adults, faithfully getting the vaccine each year greatly reduces the odds of catching a flu so severe that it lands you in the hospital.” The article describes a Spanish research study which discovered that seniors who get their flu shot year after year reduce their risk of dying from influenza by an impressive 70 percent, and they are also 74 percent less likely to wind up in intensive care due to effects from the flu bug. According to Dr. Jesus Castilla, the Spanish research physician who authored the study, “The findings bolster the notion that although getting a flu shot doesn’t always prevent the flu, it can make it milder for those who do catch it.” We think this is extremely important ammunition for caregivers who may need to convince a reluctant senior to be vaccinated.
While for most people catching the flu is a relatively minor annoyance, for many of the most vulnerable it can prove deadly. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that influenza accounts for hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations every year, and depending on the severity of a particular flu season the number of deaths in the U.S. has ranged between 12,000 and 56,000 each year since 2010. Older adults are particularly susceptible to severe complications from influenza because their immune systems aren’t as robust. The Centers for Disease Control says that 90 percent of deaths from the flu occur in adults 65 and older.
Annual Flu Vaccine “Acts as a Booster”
Dr. Castilla’s research concentrated on several hundred 65-plus adults. What the doctor and his colleagues discovered was that the positive benefits from the flu shot appear to be cumulative: in fact, the study found that those who had gotten a flu vaccination in the current and three previous flu seasons were half as likely to develop a severe case of the illness than their less-vaccinated counterparts. In Dr. Castilla’s words, “Annual vaccination acts as a booster for [the patient’s] immune response. In other words, the protection increases as compared to the effect of vaccination in a single season.”
As the HealthDay article explains, developing each year’s flu vaccine is “a tricky business.” In order to predict what vaccine to produce for patients in the Northern Hemisphere, health officials examine which strains of the virus had been most prevalent in Southern Hemisphere in the previous months. Then they adapt the vaccine to those expectations. “They have to do a little bit of guesswork,” said one immunologist, “and don’t always guess correctly.” But the good news from this new research, and the biggest take-away of all for seniors and their families, is that the quality of that “guesswork” from one year to the next may not matter so much. One doctor stated, “The most important take-home message is to get your flu shot and not worry about how effective it is this year.” She adds that “People might be more inclined to skip [the vaccine],” but they definitely should not, because “this study really emphasizes that a primary benefit is year after year of consistently getting that flu shot helps keep people out of the hospital and ICU.”
Good Medical Advice – and Good Retirement Advice
To us at AgingOptions, this article is one more reminder how important it is for seniors to get good, solid, age-appropriate medical advice. We strongly advise that older patients seek out the services of a geriatrician, someone trained in senior health needs. A geriatrician will take the time to get to know you, answer your questions, and give you medical advice that is right for your age and circumstances – the exact opposite of the “cookie cutter medicine” all too common today. If you’ll contact us at AgingOptions we will gladly refer you to a geriatrician in your area.
What about your retirement planning? Here, too, it’s vital that you work with someone who will take the time to listen to you and get to know your circumstances – not someone who will suggest a one-size-fits-all approach that may seem suitable today but is sure to prove dangerously inadequate in the future when health concerns loom and housing plans become unsustainable. At AgingOptions we call our comprehensive retirement planning approach LifePlanning, and we invite you to join Rajiv Nagaich at a free seminar where you can get the facts about this retirement breakthrough for yourself. We offer these LifePlanning Seminars at locations throughout the Puget Sound region, and we would love to have you join us. For dates, times and locations, click here to visit our Live Events page. Then register online or call us during the week.
LifePlanning Seminars fill up fast, so why not register today? It will be our pleasure to meet you.
(originally reported at https://consumer/healthday.com)