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Flu jab isn't perfect by a long shot, health officials admit

Philip Izzo got a flu shot this year, but the 65-year-old Carlsbad, Calif., man said he still got sick.

So did most of his family, including his partner, two sisters, a brother and a brother-in-law, all in states as far-flung as Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida.

“It was terrible,” he said of the illness that struck right around the holidays. “We were down for the count.”

Izzo, like many of the people who dutifully get their shots each year, figured his family was fully protected against the coughing, fever and body aches that the influenza infection.

So he says he was surprised to learn that government health officials today pegged the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine at about 62 percent.

“I’m stunned, actually,” said Izzo. “It begs the question, why did I get the shot?”

More people are asking that question now, amid a flu season that started early and now has spread to 90 percent of the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Government health officials urge everyone older than 6 months to get flu shots, and they say it’s the best way to prevent serious complications such as pneumonia -- and even death.

But they also acknowledge the shots can be a hard sell, especially when people learn they’re not 100 percent effective.

“We’d love it to be better, but we think it’s a substantial public health benefit,” said Dr. Joe Bresee, who heads the epidemiology and prevention branch of the CDC’s influenza division.

Critics of vaccines object to injecting foreign substances into their bodies, worry that side effects are more serious than health officials acknowledge and argue that the shots are not effective enough, anyway. 

Sixty percent effectiveness is about what CDC expects in any given year, though the actual rate can range from about 65 percent to 80 percent in young, healthy people, flu experts say.

Flu vaccines are tricky to make because flu viruses are constantly changing and because human immune response wanes quickly after immunization, Bresee said.

“If I had the perfect answer of how to make a better flu vaccine, I'd probably get a Nobel Prize,” he joked.

The quest for a long-lasting, universally effective flu vaccine continues, but in the meantime, there are many reasons that people who got flu shots may find themselves still battling a nasty bug.

First, it might not be the flu at all. Several other viruses are circulating this year and the flu shot doesn’t protect against them at all. An aggressive strain of norovirus, an unpleasant gut bug, is especially prevalent this year.

“I hear that every day: People think they got the flu shot and they are not going to get any other illness,” said Dr. Sharon Orrange, an assistant professor of Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “If you have bronchitis or an upper respiratory infection, the flu shot will not protect you from that.”

Second, it takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to take full effect and during that time, people are still susceptible to the virus.

Finally, their bodies may not have mounted a strong enough immune response to the vaccine. That can happen, even if they've gotten shots, because of age or underlying illness, doctors say.

“People need to understand that it’s not 100 percent,” Orrange said.

But, she added, the flu shot may shorten the duration of the illness, soften its severity and prevent complications, including pneumonia.

Three weeks after his holiday flu, Izzo says he still has lingering effects. He wonders whether the flu shot he got in October prevented an even worse bout of illness, but he’s still not convinced of the benefits.

“I’m likely, possibly, not to get it next year,” he said.

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