Why the Benefits of the Flu Vaccine Far Outweigh the Risks

The vaccine can reduce hospitalization among the very old and the very young
Why the Benefits of the Flu Vaccine Far Outweigh the Risk

Contributor:  Ronan Factora, MD

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Polio. Smallpox. These are villains that have caused so much pain, suffering and death for humankind for centuries. People suffered the scars and loss these organisms have wrought on their friends, parents, siblings and children until human ingenuity developed the weapon that has been the most successful in reducing and eliminating the threat: vaccines.

As time has passed, humans have advanced in their ability to use vaccines to protect themselves against other diseases, such as whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus and hepatitis B. In fact, the frequency that these diseases have been encountered over the decades has declined so much that the general public has essentially forgotten the impact these diseases have had. And the public may be taking for granted the benefit these vaccines provide.

There were about 580 tetanus cases per year before vaccines, with an average of 472 of these cases resulting in death (mortality rate of 81 percent, i.e. about 8 in 10 chance of dying). The tetanus vaccine was first available in the United States in 1940. On average, there were 29 cases annually from 1996 to 2009, involving unvaccinated individuals.

Annual rates of diphtheria in the 1920s were between 100,000 and 200,000 cases, with 13,000 to 15,000 deaths (in other words, a 1 in 20 chance of dying). After widespread use of immunization, only seven cases were reported to the CDC between 1998 and 2009.

Why an annual flu vaccine

Though there’s controversy around the flu vaccine’s effectiveness in reducing mortality, we know the vaccine can reduce hospitalization among the very old and the very young caused by influenza symptoms.

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Because there are many influenza virus strains, it can be very difficult to determine which one will be the most problematic in a given year. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tries annually to make its best guess which three to four strains will be most likely to infect the largest number of individuals, and then develops the vaccine based on this hypothesis.

Sometimes expectations are correct, resulting in fewer flu-related hospitalizations and less death. But other years, the CDC’s guess is not so good, and the vaccine doesn’t target the right strains.

Recently, publications have raised concerns about the safety of vaccines, linking them to health problems. However, there’s a lack of science to support these claims, and the efficacy and safety of these vaccines have been able to stand up on their own.

The CDC recommends a yearly influenza vaccine for individuals age 65 and older to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death. Because the aging human body’s immune system weakens, administration of a high dose influenza vaccine is recommended for our older patients.

Don’t forget the pneumococcal vaccine

There are now two pneumococcal vaccines recommended for older individuals. One guards against 13 different strains of bacterial pneumonia, and the other vaccine offers protection from 23 different strains.

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It’s important to remember that vaccines only reduce the risk of developing the disease –– they do not eliminate it 100 percent. Other strains of influenza and pneumonia, from which vaccines do not protect, can cause sickness. Regardless, getting vaccinated reduces your chances.

Like most health matters, decisions to vaccinate are made by weighing risks and benefits. For vaccines, I believe that more often than not, the benefit is well worth the risk.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.

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