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Mass flu vaccination would be madness

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Richard Halvorsen
London Times
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A mass vaccination programme moves ever closer. Orders have been placed; priority groups identified. There will be enough swine flu vaccine to inoculate the entire population, starting with NHS staff, in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease and save lives.

Is all this really necessary? To start with, swine flu is far milder than we first feared, so the case for vaccinating millions of healthy adults against a disease that is no more unpleasant than a bad cold is questionable. There is a stronger argument for vaccinating those at greater risk, such as those with lung, heart or kidney disease, those with suppressed immune systems (such as those on cancer treatment), pregnant women and children under 5 — but only if the vaccine works and is safe. But there are serious doubts about this.

Rushing the vaccine on to the market means we will have no idea how effective it is, although we do have a body of research on the effectiveness of flu vaccines in general, which gives some idea of what we might expect from the swine flu vaccine. Provided that we have matched the vaccine well with the virus, it is likely to be up to 80 per cent effective in healthy adults, the group at least risk from the virus.

A number of trials have looked at the effect of flu vaccination on children’s asthma and have failed to demonstrate any benefit; one trial even suggested that the vaccine made asthma worse. There is no good evidence that the vaccine helps those with chronic health problems or pregnant women. However, we do know that the immunisation offers no more than a modest benefit in the elderly; indeed, the effectiveness of the vaccine is known to decrease sharply after 70 years of age.

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This article was posted: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 4:10 am

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