Flu vaccine effectiveness study signals 'no protection' this year in Canada

This year's flu vaccine offers little or no protection in Canada against becoming sick enough to require medical care, a study published Thursday suggests.

Backup options such as antivirals should come to the fore for those at high risk

This year's flu vaccine offers little or no protection in Canada against becoming sick enough to require medical care, a study published Thursday suggests.

The research, based on data from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, found the vaccine offers most people virtually no protection against the strain that's causing the lion's share of the illness this year, H3N2.

There weren't enough cases of flu caused by H1N1 or influenza B viruses to assess whether the vaccine would have been more protective against them. That may change as the flu season progresses — it is not uncommon to see late-season surges of influenza B illness. But for now, this year's shot's performance looks pretty dismal.

"I would say overall it's signalling no protection," said lead author Dr. Danuta Skowronski, an influenza expert at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control.

The study, an interim estimate of this year's flu vaccine effectiveness, was published Thursday in Eurosurveillance, an online journal belonging to the European Centre for Disease Control.

Skowronski said the message people should take from the study is that if they are at high risk of developing pneumonia or getting seriously ill if they contract influenza, they should take other steps to protect their health.

"There's still H3N2 circulating. So probably the most important message to get out now is for high-risk individuals not to count on vaccine to have protected them this season," she said, noting those steps include avoiding people who are ill and going to the doctor to get a prescription for a flu antiviral drug if they become infected.

"Other backup options should come to the fore because the vaccine protection is so disappointing this year."

Health authorities in other jurisdictions have been putting out that message as well. On Thursday, the New York City Health Department issued a health alert notification urging doctors citywide to prescribe influenza antiviral medications to all high-risk or severely ill patients suspected of having the flu.

An interesting finding of the study is that people who did not get a flu shot last year appeared to get more protection from the vaccine this year than people who got shots both years. For those people, the vaccine appeared to offer about 43 per cent protection against developing influenza that required medical help.

There is an emerging school of thought that repeated vaccination in some circumstances may actually undermine the protectiveness of the vaccine. Skowronski said the area needs additional research.

Earlier this month the U.S. Centers for Disease Control published interim vaccine effectiveness data for that country. The flu season south of the border has been very similar to the one in Canada — almost all caused by H3N2 — and their early findings suggested the vaccine lowered a recipient's risk of contracting the flu and getting sick enough to need medical care by 23 per cent.

That's well below the 50 to 70 per cent effectiveness estimate that is often cited for flu vaccine.

Separately, a review of published and unpublished randomized trials for the antiviral flu medication Tamiflu suggested it shortens flu symptoms by about a day compared with a placebo in adults with lab-confirmed influenza.

Tamiflu or oseltamivir also increased the risk of nausea and vomiting.

"Because benefits accrue only to patients with laboratory-confirmed influenza, but the risk of adverse events is increased in all patients, rapid diagnostic testing, if available, is advisable before oseltamivir administration in routine clinical practice," Heath Kelly from the Australian National University in Canberra and Benjamin Cowling from The University of Hong Kong said in a journal commentary published with the research.

With files from CBC News