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No Seasonal Flu Shot for Canadians?

September 30, 2009



Canadian scientists say they have some preliminary data suggesting that the seasonal flu shot may increase a person’s risk of catching H1N1 (otherwise known as swine flu). How large the increase in risk might be is anyone’s guess as the studies have not been peer-reviewed and published. Yet public health officials are already using the findings to make policy decisions. According to Reuters, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan have decided to delay giving seasonal flu shots to anyone under the age of 65. (Older individuals, those most susceptible to seasonal flu, will still get the flu shot this fall.)

The Data

According to the CBC, the data come from four separate studies involving a total of 2,000 people. The researchers found that people who had the seasonal flu shot last fall were more likely to contract pandemic H1N1. Why that might be is still a mystery.

Canadian reporter Helen Branswell, who was on NPR yesterday, had this to say about the research:

Not very many people have seen it, but a lot of people in public health know about it and it became part of the discussion as the provinces and territorial governments in Canada were trying to figure out what to do with seasonal flu vaccine and pandemic flu vaccine delivery programs for this fall . . .

It’s a very unusual situation for an unpublished study to be influencing public policy in this way, especially as many other people who are making the decisions may not have actually seen the data.

Yes, it is ‘unusual.’ One might even say ‘irresponsible.’ I would like to think that there was some sort of informal peer review — a cadre of independent flu experts poring over the data in some dimly lit back room, at least. But perhaps it was simply a knee-jerk reaction, like when Egypt decided to slaughter all its pigs to prevent the spread of swine flu.

Of course, given that 99% of the flu virus being transmitted these days is pandemic H1N1, the provinces’ decision to delay seasonal flu vaccination may not matter much, if at all. But that doesn’t mean that making rash decisions based on limited data that has not been independently verified is a good strategy. What’s particularly disturbing is Branswell’s comment that the decision-makers may not have even seen the studies.

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