The flu vaccine given to millions of people each year in Britain is “over-promoted” and “over-hyped” and the protection it offers against the seasonal illness has been exaggerated, scientists claim.
Flu causes thousands of deaths, mainly among the elderly, in the UK each year but the vaccine is of limited effectiveness, especially for older people. One expert told The Independent the Government should be held accountable for “wasting taxpayer’s money” on the annual £120m national vaccination campaign.
But scientists stressed it was still worth getting the jab as it is currently “the best we have”.
A report published by the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, US, says the misperception that existing flu vaccines are highly effective has become a barrier to developing new and better vaccines.
It also risks undermining public trust in mass immunisation campaigns if Governments fail to tell the truth about the vaccine.
Michael Osterholm, director of CIDRAP and professor of Environmental Health Sciences, said: “I have been a strong proponent of vaccination in general and flu vaccine in particular for many years. I still recommend its use as the best we have. But we have over-promoted this vaccine. For certain age groups in some years its effectiveness has been severely limited relative to what has been previously reported.”
The vaccine is offered free on the NHS to everyone in the UK over 65, to patients of all ages with chronic illnesses such as asthma, to pregnant women and front-line healthcare workers in what is an annual bonanza for drug companies.
Latest figures from the Health Protection Agency show 60.8 per cent of over-65s have had their flu shot this winter and 37.5 per cent of those with chronic illnesses. Among pregnant women uptake is running at 29.8 per cent with healthcare workers at 28.4 per cent.