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Flu shot does poor job protecting seniors

ATLANTA -- This year's flu shot is doing a dismal job of protecting senior citizens, the most vulnerable age group.

The vaccine is proving only 9 percent effective in people 65 and older against the harsh strain of the flu that is predominant this season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday.

Health officials are baffled as to why this is so. But the findings help explain why so many older people have been hospitalized with the flu this year.

Despite the findings, the CDC stood by its recommendation that everyone older than 6 months get flu shots, the elderly included, because some protection is better than none and because those who are vaccinated and still get sick may suffer less severe symptoms.

"Year in and year out, the vaccine is the best protection we have," CDC flu expert Dr. Joseph Bresee said.

Overall, across the age groups studied the vaccine's effectiveness was found to be a moderate 56 percent, which means those who got a shot have a 56 percent lower chance of winding up at the doctor with the flu. That is somewhat worse than what has been seen in other years.

For those 65 and older, the vaccine was only 27 percent effective against the three strains it is designed to protect against, the worst level in about a decade. It did a particularly poor job against the tough strain that is causing more than three-quarters of the illnesses this year.

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It is well known that the flu vaccine tends to protect younger people better than older ones. Elderly people have weaker immune systems that don't respond as well to flu shots, and they are more vulnerable to the illness and its complications, including pneumonia.

But health officials said they don't know why this year's vaccine did so poorly in that age group. One theory, as yet unproven, is that older people's immune systems were accustomed to strains from the last two years and had more trouble switching gears to handle this year's different, harsh strain.

For senior citizens, a flu vaccine is considered pretty good if its effectiveness is in the 30 percent to 40 percent range, said Dr. Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan flu expert.

This flu season started in early December and peaked by the end of the year. Hospitalization rates for people 65 and older have been some of the highest in a decade, at 146 per 100,000 people.

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