Research revealed by Public Health England (PHE) suggests there were significantly more deaths from flu than expected, flu vaccine effectiveness concerns have been raised. Evidence shows the current vaccine is stopping only three out of every 100 vaccinated from developing the illness. The agency stated that a “drift” or mutation in the virus has caused mismatching between the strain that was used to create the vaccine and the current strain which has been active this winter, resulting in minimal protections for those vaccinated.
This means that older people, children, pregnant women and adults with underlying health problems such as heart or respiratory illnesses, and those with a weakened immune system may not be properly protected by receiving a vaccine injection. This mismatch is a stark contrast from the 5o percent effectiveness rate that most virus injections are expected provide. However, Public Health England states people should continue to receive vaccines with the current vaccine to protect themselves against other virus strains.
John Watson, deputy chief medical officer, said: “Antiviral drugs are available and effective, and doctors should prescribe them for those at greatest risk of becoming seriously ill from the flu.” In 2014, the World Health Organization settled on three of the most likely strains of flu that would be active this winter. Even so, one strain has mutated so powerfully that the current vaccine seems to offer little protection from the virus. It works on just three out of every 100 people, when it should normally work on 50 out of 100. The A (H3N2) strain was selected for vaccination use in February 2014, but is a variation of the strain that is making its way around the UK this winter.
PHE, the government organization responsible for managing the nation’s health said the WHO underestimate may have resulted in virus outbreaks in elderly care homes and more people being hospitalized. Head of flu Surveillance, Dr Richard Pebody, said “It’s not possible to fully predict the strains that will circulate in any given season, and there is always a risk of a drift occurring as we have seen this year.”
The question of flu vaccine effectiveness which have been raised are important because the current stain, H3N2, is a particular worry as the virus primarily kills the elderly and studies have shown a higher number of deaths in elderly people this year from influenza complications. Experts agree that GPs should begin prescribing antiviral tablets – which will treat the illness, but not prevent it – to vulnerable patients as soon as they show symptoms.
Similar levels of flu vaccine effectiveness concerns over a virus mutation have also been raised in the United States and Canada. The three-year level last month may have added to the recent crisis is A&E and are just now being understood. PHE has stated this is the worst illness season in the past few years, but is nowhere near epidemic levels. “The latest data show that levels of flu are generally decreasing in the UK”, states John Watson, the country’s deputy chief medical officer. Experts agree that the best way to protect against the flu is receiving flu vaccine while also practicing good hand washing and hygiene, and visiting a GP for treatment when sick.
By Tara Newlands
Photo by NHS Employers – Flickr License