The flu vaccine given to millions of Britons turns out to be almost entirely ineffective, with only 3 per cent of cases showing any useful effect.
Health officials have admitted that the flu vaccine given to millions of people only provides “low protection” against the main strain of the virus spreading around the UK.
Flu has been cited as one reason for a climbing death rate in England and Wales, which is rising to almost a third higher than normal for this time of year.
It’s crucial that these results do not discourage people in at-risk groups from having flu vaccination. Study author
The number of flu deaths in Britain this year is expected to be the highest for 15 years.
The vaccine was estimated to work in only 3 per cent of cases in lab tests, compared with a more typical effectiveness of 50 per cent with previous vaccines, Public Health England (PHE) said.
The health body said recent studies in the US and Canada echoed the findings and linked the declining effectiveness to genetic “drift” in the virus.
It said the problem was caused by a “mismatch” between the A(H3N2) influenza strain used to make the vaccine and the main A(H3N2) strain that has been prevalent across Britain this winter.
Deputy chief medical officer John Watson admitted to “drift” in the flu virus from time to time, but said a vaccine “is still the best overall way to protect yourself and your family from flu, along with good hand hygiene”.
“Antiviral drugs are available and effective, and doctors should prescribe them for those at greatest risk of becoming seriously ill due to flu,” he added.
Dr Richard Pebody, PHE’s head of flu surveillance and the study’s author, said that if the flu virus changes, altering the vaccine “is not possible”.
“Throughout the last decade, there has generally been a good match between the strains of flu in the vaccine and those that subsequently circulate, so it’s crucial that these results do not discourage people in at-risk groups from having flu vaccination now, or in the future,” he added.
“The current vaccine is still expected to protect against flu A(H1N1)pdm09 and flu B – both of which may yet circulate this season, so anyone in an at-risk group should still get vaccinated if they have not already.”
The Office for National Statistics has suggested the flu virus and the cold snap could be to blame for the increased death rate.
Analysis by PHE found that deaths among people aged over 65 have been higher than expected for six weeks, even taking the time of year into account.
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