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Do flu shots shorten life expectancy?

Ho and Hendi relate 2014-15 declines in life expectancy to the severe flu season and conclude that countries should continue to encourage high rates of vaccination against influenza, while they acknowledge the vaccine’s “lower efficacy.” This is a misleading euphemism since the vaccine actually increased the risk of illness from H3N2, the most virulent strain. (Note that negative vaccine effectiveness/VE signifies increased risk from the vaccine): CANADA: -17% (-50 to 9); when subjects were vaccinated for three consecutive seasons H3N2 VE was -54% (-108 to -14) [Skowronski, Clin Inf Dis 3/29/16]…..SPAIN: -15% (-101 to 34); in subjects also vaccinated the previous season H3N2 VE was -45% (-171 to 21) [Gherasim, PLoS ONE 6/4/17]……UK: 29% (8 to 45); for children, flu shot H3N2 VE was -73% (-457 to 46); in Wales, overall H3N2 VE was -41% (-459 to 64) [Pebody, EuroSurveill 9/10/15]…….In the US the CDC has not so far disclosed H3N2 VE for 2014-15.

Margaret McCartney questioned the value of mass flu vaccination and called for randomized controlled trials. [BMJ 2014;349:g6182] Years before, Kenneth McIntosh counselled against routine flu vaccination of children because we lacked—as we still do—information about long-term risks and benefits. [NEJM 2000;342:27]) Lone Simonsen found that from 1968 to 2001 US flu deaths in the elderly increased in concert with their increasing use of flu vaccine. [Arch Int Med 2005;165:265. Science 2005;307:1026] Roger Bodewes referred to the “double-edged sword” of annual vaccination because it subverts broad and lasting natural immunity. [Lancet Inf Dis 2009;9:784. J Virol 2011;85:11995] Since 2004, Tom Jefferson, Peter Doshi and their colleagues at the Cochrane Collaboration have published several reviews spotlighting the absence of high quality evidence for flu vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. [BMJ, Lancet, Cochrane, etc] In 2005 Doshi exposed statistical distortions introduced by the CDC seemingly in an effort to market the vaccine. [BMJ 2005;331:1419] The distortions continue to this day.

It has taken time, but some experts now wonder if recent bad flu seasons are, in part, the direct result of mass vaccination; herd immunity may now be weaker, and some severe cases may be specifically caused by the vaccine, via “antibody-dependent enhancement of infection.” In the US, the “big push” for mass vaccination began around 2006 with routine annual vaccination of healthy children; by 2010 an annual flu shot was recommended for every US man, woman and child over age 6 months. Since 2006 there has been no discernible decline in influenza morbidity or mortality. In fact, reported rates of influenza infections have roughly tripled in Canada. [Infection Prevention and Control Canada 2/3/18] In the US age-adjusted influenza death rates have also roughly tripled. [“Trends in pneumonia and influenza mortality”, American Lung Association, November 2015. NVSS/CDC, Vol 6, Nov 27,2017, Table I-21]

H3N2 VE was at least as bad during the 2017-18 season: DENMARK: -42% (-116 to 7)…… UK: -27% (-111 to 24)……SPAIN: 7% (-74 to 51)….. EUROPEAN UNION: -16% (-96 to 31) [Rondy, EuroSurveill 3/1/18]…. H3N2 VE during Australia’s 2017 flu season was 10% (-16 to 31) overall, but was -20% (-160 to 42) in the elderly. Overall H3N2 VE was reduced to 3% (-29 to 27) in subjects who had also received the flu shot during the 2016 season. [Sullivan, EuroSurveill 10/26/17] Once again, our CDC has not yet disclosed H3N2 VE in the US for 2017-18.

Are annual flu shots shortening life expectancies?

Allan S. Cunningham

Competing interests: No competing interests

19 August 2018
Allan S. Cunningham
Retired pediatrician
Cooperstown NY 13326, USA