— Nancy Dragun wanted to ward off flu this year, so she got
her family vaccinated early, a shot for herself and doses of
the FluMist nasal spray for her two boys, ages 9 and 11.
trust the experts, I guess, and my pediatricians have always
recommended it," said Dragun, 42, who works at the
University of Washington.
Dragun said she’s disturbed at new evidence showing this
year’s vaccine—both the FluMist spray and the seasonal
shots—likely won’t protect very well against targeted flu
viruses. In the case of FluMist, there are problems with
effectiveness in two of the three or four flu strains it’s
formulated to hit.
starting to wonder if I should have done that," Dragun
said. "It’s a little bit nerve-wracking, for
start of what may be a bad flu season, health officials are
scrambling to reassure the public that even though this year’s
vaccine has problems, it’s still the best way to prevent
potentially deadly flu infections.
flu is a very wily and cagey virus," said Dr. Don Shifrin,
a Bellevue, Wash., pediatrician. "Every year we try to
play whack-a-mole with the flu virus. Some years we do better
than others, but we’re still in the game."
released in November by the federal Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention found that FluMist offered "no
measurable effectiveness" against one virus, the H1N1
swine flu, among children last year. Because the vaccine hasn’t
changed, the same results may occur this year, health
officials recently announced that the 2014-2015 vaccine is a
poor match for about half of the H3N2 viruses that appear to
be the dominant strain already spreading this season.
is unpredictable, but what we’ve seen thus far is
concerning," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden told news
could be a worse-than-normal year for flu, Frieden added,
because seasons in which H3 viruses dominate typically cause
more illnesses and deaths than seasons in which H1 viruses are
officials also warned doctors about the problem, urging them—and
consumers—to seek antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and
Relenza at the first sign of flu, especially for people
particularly vulnerable to infection.
antiviral drugs don’t stop flu, but they may shorten the
intensity and duration of the illness, experts said.
flu-vaccine problems are bad news for health officials, who
recommend that everyone older than 6 months get shots or
sprays. Only about 42 percent of adults and less than 60
percent of kids and teens got inoculated for flu last year,
according to the CDC.
good year, flu vaccine is about 50 to 70 percent effective at
preventing illness, experts estimate. In a bad year, more of
those inoculated get sick anyway. In 2007-2008, when there was
a mismatch between vaccine and virus, efficacy dropped to just
above 40 percent. Shifrin said he worries that might prompt
some people to skip the shots this year—and in the future.
very easy to scare people," he said. "We don’t
want to put out the message that the flu vaccine doesn’t
season has just started, health records show.
percent of more than 13,000 samples tested so far by the CDC
are the dominant H3N2 subtype of flu, about 6 percent are the
B strain, and almost none were the H1N1 swine flu, which
descended from the 2009 pandemic strain, according to new flu
figures released last week.
than half of the H3 subtypes—or 58 percent of the samples—are
a new H3 strain that has "drifted," or changed from
the type targeted by this year’s flu vaccine. As a result,
the vaccine likely offers poor protection against that strain,
subtype first showed up in March overseas, but it wasn’t
seen in large numbers in the U.S. until September. Because it
takes about four months to manufacture a flu vaccine, it’s
too late to make a change, Frieden added. So far this year,
about 150 million doses of flu vaccine have been released.
problem with FluMist is different. Scientists still don’t
know why the vaccine failed almost completely to protect
against the H1N1 swine-flu strain last year, particularly in
the youngest patients.
was very surprising," said Mike Jackson, a scientific
investigator at Group Health Research Institute in Seattle,
one of five sites across the country that routinely conduct
vaccine-effectiveness checks for the CDC. "It’s really
quite different from the way this specific vaccine performed
in the last couple years."
CDC officials were so confident about the nasal spray, which
uses a live but weakened virus, that in June they recommended
that it be the first choice for kids ages 2 to 8 for the
about problems with the vaccines is surprising and concerning
for parents like Dragun.
a mother, my first priority is to protect my kids, but I don’t
want to put anything additional into them if it’s not going
to protect them," she said.
experts say they hope parents take a wider view, that vaccines
still offer important defense against flu, which has been
linked to the deaths of five children nationally already this
I would tell parents—and what I would tell my wife, who
asked the question—is that the vaccines may have lower
effectiveness, but they have some effectiveness," said
Dr. Joe Bresee, the chief of epidemiology and prevention in
the CDC’s flu branch. "I wouldn’t regret getting the
vaccine and, moreover, I would say go out and get it."
some evidence that FluMist may actually protect better against
so-called drifted strains, such as the new H3N2 virus. There’s
almost no H1N1 circulating this year, so it’s still a good
choice, Bresee said.
already have received FluMist this year, they’re considered
fully vaccinated, CDC officials said. It’s not recommended
that they get a shot too, noted Dr. Doug Opel, a pediatrician
and bioethicist at Seattle Children’s.
parent—or grandparent—should forgo flu vaccine for
themselves or their kids because of the reported problems,
each year, influenza causes more hospitalizations and deaths
in the U.S. than any other vaccine-preventable disease,"
he said. The CDC estimates that flu causes 200,000
hospitalizations and anywhere between 3,000 and 48,000 deaths
in the U.S. in any given year. Most deaths are among people
older than 65.
her concerns about vaccine effectiveness, Dragun decided that
she’s glad she and her boys are vaccinated. They’re pretty
healthy kids, generally, and even if the vaccine doesn’t
stop the flu, the illness may be shorter and less severe.
guess I come down on that side," she said. "It’s
better to have some protection than no protection."