Flu vaccines may be a massive waste of time and money, an expert warned today. There is little medical evidence that the vaccines have any kind of beneficial effect, even for vulnerable people with asthma and cystic fibrosis, he said.
Vaccines given to children under the age of two have the same effect as if they were given a dummy drug, he added.
Tom Jefferson, co-ordinator of the vaccines field of the highly-respected Cochrane Collaboration, called for an “urgent” re-evaluation of vaccination campaigns.
Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), he said that, because influenza viruses mutate and vary from year to year, it was difficult for scientists to study the precise effects of vaccines.
Most studies are of poor quality, and there is little comparative evidence on the safety of the vaccines, he said. In addition, policy makers wanted to be seen to be doing something, all of which leads to a “large gap” between policy and the evidence, he said.
The difficulty in distinguishing between flu and flu-like illness added to the confusion, with some illnesses listed as flu when they were not, he said. He wrote: “The large gap between policy and what the data tell us (when rigorously assembled and evaluated) is surprising.
“The reasons for this situation are not clear, and may be complex. The starting point is the potential confusion between influenza and influenza-like illness, when any case of illness resembling influenza is seen as real influenza, especially during peak periods of activity.
“Some surveillance systems report cases of influenza-like illness as influenza without further explanation. This confusion leads to a gross overestimation of the impact of influenza, unrealistic expectations of the performance of vaccines, and spurious certainty of our ability to predict viral circulation and impact.”
He said that policy makers, “in their efforts to deal with, or be seen to deal with” a situation, favoured action with what was available – flu vaccines. He continued: “A similar philosophy is the ‘we have to make decisions and cannot wait to have perfect data’ approach.”
In a separate background paper, Dr Jefferson said: “Reviews show a consistent picture of modest or no effect of inactivated vaccines and poor quality of the original studies, especially those that are not randomised controlled trials.”
Referring to the gap between policy and evidence, he said that “given the huge resources involved in yearly vaccination campaigns, a re-evaluation should be urgently undertaken”.
Earlier this month, there were fears that vulnerable people in the UK might have to wait for flu jabs after the Government confirmed stocks would arrive late.
The jab is given to high-risk groups first, including the over-65s, people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, and those with chronic conditions such as diabetes. The Department has ordered 15.2 million doses for across the UK – around a million more than last year.
But flu vaccination provider Doctorcall pointed to studies which found flu vaccination to be effective – and warned those who needed one not to jump to “hasty decisions”.
It said that in 2001 the Home Office monitored Doctorcall’s employee flu immunisation programme, comparing the uptake of flu vaccinations by staff with staff absences – and the value of the reduction in sick leave was greater than the cost of doing the vaccination.
Medical director Dr Charles Levinson said: “It is essential that those who require a flu vaccination do not panic as a result of this announcement and ask their GP or medical adviser for advice rather than jumping to any hasty decisions.”