A day after a new study revealed that flu vaccines are not as effective as once thought, doctors report that their patients are asking questions about the findings.
The Minnesota-led study found that in an average year, flu vaccine effectiveness is just 59 percent among vaccinated adults. The results are a surprising departure from what public health officials have long told the public about the effectiveness of flu vaccine. Previously they described seasonal flu vaccines as offering good protection — in the range of 70 to 90 percent.
Still, it doesn't appear that the downgrade in the vaccine's effectiveness is altering many patients decision to get immunized against flu.
Dr. Robert Segal's first patient of the day was a two-year-old scheduled to receive the flu vaccine. The child's mother had a few questions about the vaccine after hearing news reports on its revised effectiveness.
"She just was interested in that and wondered what that meant," Segal said. "And still was very much desirous of her child getting a flu vaccine."
Segal, a pediatrician at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said it was a good exchange because it gave him the chance to explain the research and put it in perspective for the family.
"I guess my biggest concern is that people will either not come in at all to see one of our nurses to get a flu shot and we'll never know they didn't come because they read this and misunderstood or it, or when they do come in are more hesitant," he said. "Hopefully with a conversation with us will be more likely to go forward."
A similar scenario played out this morning at a flu clinic in Northfield, Minn., where Dr. Rod Christensen is Chief Medical Officer for Allina Medical Clinic. He oversees 45 Allina clinics, including the one in Northfield. When he checked in with his medical staff, Christensen was told that 25 people were scheduled to receive a flu vaccine today.
"They all showed up," Christensen said. "About 10 of them mentioned that they'd heard the article. But none of them were particularly bothered by it. They all went ahead and got their vaccines."
Christensen wasn't surprised. He thinks most patients already understand that flu vaccines aren't perfect. He said as long as there's some benefit to the flu vaccine, Allina doctors will continue promoting it to patients.
"There's nothing about this report today that challenges the safety of influenza vaccine," he said. "So even though it isn't quite as protective as we'd like, the fact that it is so safe is one of the reasons that we'll continue strongly to recommend it."
Family physician David Caccamo agrees. He said the study results won't change the advice he gives to his patients at the HealthPartners Clinic in Cottage Grove, Minn.
"It's effective for preventing a big chunk of disease,"Caccamo said. "And for people who want to take a safe, cost-effective immunization to help prevent that to the degree that it can, I still think it's a pretty good deal."
Besides the vaccine's safety, cost-effectiveness and potential benefit to some individual patients, physicians say it's also a useful tool to tamp down the overall volume of flu circulating in the community.
Segal, of Children's Hospitals, said there's no doubt that the vaccine creates what's known as herd immunity.
"So to the degree that people aren't getting the disease they're not spreading it to other people and that's incredibly important," he said. "And although herd immunity is better the higher the effectiveness of the vaccine, it's still quite important even if you have a vaccine that's only 60 percent effective."
These are all messages that appear to resonate well with people who are in the habit of getting an annual flu vaccination. It's less clear is if these messages will be enough to motivate people who were already unsure about the value of getting the vaccine.