February 3, 2011

Study finds flu vaccine helps keep elderly out of the hospital

Study finds flu vaccine helps keep elderly out of the hospital

A new study by Vanderbilt infectious disease and preventive medicine researcher H. Keipp Talbot, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of Medicine, reinforced the ability of the flu shot to keep older adults out of the hospital.

H. Keipp Talbot, M.D., MPH

H. Keipp Talbot, M.D., MPH

The study appears in January's Journal of Infectious Diseases and tracked more than 400 people over age 50 who were hospitalized with flu-like disease.

It has been well documented that the immune response to the flu vaccine declines with age, but more recent data even questioned whether it was helpful in keeping older adults out of the hospital at all.

“We were able to show the vaccine is still quite helpful in adults over age 50, offering a lot of protection for the low cost of the shot,” Talbot said.

The current recommendation by public health officials is that all adults older than age 50 should receive a seasonal flu shot, but it has been difficult to study how well the vaccine prevents disease in this population.

Because of the lack of quality evidence, and because recent surveys indicated the usefulness of the vaccine was coming into question, Talbot decided to focus in on the hospitalized population.

In Talbot's study, all adults were swabbed for samples and about 10 percent were confirmed to have the flu with polymerase chain reaction testing. Of all adults hospitalized with the flu, 36 percent were vaccinated, while the rest were not.

This indicates the flu vaccine is effective in preventing at least 60 percent of influenza hospitalizations.

Talbot worked closely with Kathryn Edwards, M.D., who leads the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, and Marie Griffin, M.D., MPH, professor of Preventive Medicine, on this study. She says she hopes this work will help encourage a greater proportion of older adults to get an annual flu shot.

One shortcoming of the research is the samples were collected before the H1N1 pandemic and so the research cannot speak to that specific strain, but Talbot said the results come at a good time, when pandemic flu has highlighted the issue of developing better vaccines against influenza.

“This also speaks to the need. What we have is good, but we can do better. If we reduce hospitalization, we reduce nursing home placement and deaths in the older adult population. The vaccine needs to work to keep them healthy, visiting their grandchildren, playing bridge and doing what they enjoy,” Talbot said.