Every fall my parents would get their flu shots. At the time, it was considered necessary for people over 65 and those with certain illnesses, plus their caregivers, to be vaccinated against the coming winter's strain of influenza. I not only was a caregiver for elders, I had a son with asthma, which is one risk category, so I always got my shot.
Every once in awhile, the scientists whose job it is to figure out what to put in each year's vaccine get it wrong. That happened a number of years back when both of my parents, plus my mother-in-law, were living in the same nursing home.
I was a daily visitor to the nursing home and had been for years. Suddenly, I was not allowed to visit. They had closed off interaction between floors. All meals were brought to the floors where the residents lived, and visitors were kept out. A strain of flu that was not covered in the fall flu vaccine was getting into nursing homes, and all precautions were being taken to keep it from spreading, as elders were considered highly vulnerable.
The quarantine lasted ten days. That was the first time that I had missed visiting more than one day - ever. I became sick, myself, with another illness during that time and I often wonder if that was my subconscious "letting" my body get sick because I finally had the time. A little caregiver humor there, perhaps, but maybe there was something to it. Anyway, that discussion is for another post.
Traditionally, it's been our elders who were considered the highest risk for flu illness, and especially death, from the virus. Lately, the experts have been following children more closely and have found that children should be protected as well. Now the shots are for nearly everyone.
The nytimes.com site recently ran a story on a study that implies scientists may have been wrong about elders and their vulnerability to the flu virus. In other words, they may have been concentrating on the wrong demographic.
In a story titled, "Doubts Grow Over Flu Vaccine in Elderly," the Times story mentions a study published in Lancet, that questions the effectiveness of influenza vaccine in preventing deaths of elders. The authors of the study claim that what had been studied was not actual protection against the influenza virus, but a difference between the people who got the vaccination and those who didn't.
They claimed that people who were healthy in other aspects were more likely to get their flu shots than those who were not otherwise healthy. Therefore, it wasn't the flu vaccine that was saving lives, it was the lifestyle of those they studied. There was also some thought that since vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to protect against invasion, and elders immune systems aren't as strong as younger people, the vaccine may not be doing them much good.
There is controversy over how many deaths the vaccine actually prevents. One reason, of course, is that it's not always easy to determine what actually killed a vulnerable, frail elder.
There is much more to this study, of course. Mainly, it brings up a lot of interesting questions without any concrete answers. What do caregivers and elders decide now?
I'll tell you this. After seeing a whole nursing home fighting influenza, and after witnessing the nearly heroic efforts made to keep it from spreading, I say bring on the vaccine. It may or may not save elder's lives, but if it saves just a few from the misery my mother went through when she had the virus that year, it's worth it. No, the flu didn't kill her. But there were times during the illness when she wished it would.
Until much more is known, I believe the medical community will be issuing flu vaccines to elders - at least elders in group settings like nursing homes and assisted living - just to keep it from settling in and spreading from room to room. I'm not sure if they are saving lives here, but they may be preventing a lot of misery.
Published On: September 12, 2008