New winter flu vaccine given to millions barely works, according to public health officials

New research has found the vaccine protects just three in a hundred people – compared to 50 per cent effectiveness typically seen in recent years

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The winter flu vaccine given to millions of people in the UK barely works, public health officials have said.

New research from Public Health England (PHE) has found the vaccine protects just three in a hundred people – compared to 50 per cent effectiveness typically seen in recent years.

This is because of a mismatch between the strain of flu used in the vaccine and the strain that is chiefly circulating this year.

There are many different strains of flu and this winter has been dominated by the influenza A(H3N2) type. The H3N2 virus circulating now has mutated significantly from the type that was used in the vaccine – a phenomenon known as ‘drift’.

H3N2 type flu can be particularly severe in the elderly. While flu rates are stabilising, according to Public Health England, there have already been significantly more deaths this winter than in previous years.

Doctors have been told to quickly prescribe antiviral drugs in cases of flu in vulnerable patients.

In the first three weeks of January there were 45,037 registered deaths in England and Wales – 25 per cent higher than the average of the past five years.

A study of 1,314 patients presenting in GP surgeries across the UK found that vaccine effectiveness this winter in preventing lab-confirmed flu cases was 3 per cent overall. The study is published in Eurosurveillance.

The World Health Organisation makes recommendations on the strains of flu that should be included in vaccines but it takes from February to August to produce sufficient quantities, so if changes in the virus occur once production has started it is too late to change it.

Deputy chief medical officer John Watson said it was normal to see ‘drift’ in the flu virus “from time to time”

“Antiviral drugs are available and effective, and doctors should prescribe them for those at greatest risk of becoming seriously ill due to flu,” he said. 

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