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Flu vaccine ineffective against this season’s strain

Published on 06/02/15 at 10:30am
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This season’s flu vaccine has provided little protection against the main strain circulating in the UK according to a new UK study.

The research from Public Health England (PHE), looked at 1,314 patients presenting in primary care across the UK and found that the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing influenza was only three per cent. This is significantly lower than the approximate 50% effectiveness usually seen in flu vaccines here.

The government says that this is because of a “mismatch between the A(H3N2) strain selected for the vaccine this year and the main A(H3N2) strain that has been circulating in the UK this winter”.

The discrepancy comes from a significant ‘drift’ in the strain since it was selected for the vaccine by the World Health Organization. The vaccine has also seen low effectiveness in the US and Canada for the same reason.

Study author Dr Richard Pebody who is the PHE’s head of flu surveillance, says: “It takes from February through to August or September to produce sufficient quantities of the flu vaccine. If a change in the virus is detected once production has started it is not possible to change it.

“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. However, it’s important to be aware that this does not occur every season.

“Flu vaccine is still the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus which can cause severe illness and deaths each year among at-risk groups, including older people, pregnant women and those with a health condition, even one that is well managed.”

The ineffectiveness of the vaccine appears to have led to higher than expected mortality rates this year, particularly in the elderly, although in recent weeks there have been signs that influenza activity is stabilising.

The vaccine is still expected to protect against flu A (H1N1)pdm09 and flu B, which may still circulate this season. The government says that doctors should prescribe antivirals to people at the greatest risk of becoming seriously ill due to flu.

This is the second time that the effectiveness of flu medicines has come into focus in recent months. In January the most thorough analysis of Roche’s Tamiflu (oseltamivir) to date suggested that it was in fact effective, despite much previous controversy surrounding the government’s decision to stockpile it.

George Underwood

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