One of the unusual things about the current swine flu virus, compared with the strains that cause our yearly seasonal flu outbreaks, is that it doesn’t seem to discriminate on the basis of age. That may change as the pandemic develops, but it may not: The massive 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is also known for killing across all age groups.
There is, nonetheless, an age angle to this story, and it has to do with those garden-variety annual influenza outbreaks, and how the medical, political, and media establishments have handled them. The great majority of deaths caused each and every year by these “ordinary” flu viruses--some 36,000 on average in the United States alone, according to the CDC--are of people over 65 years old. Some years it’s more, and some years it’s fewer: During the 1990s, the number of deaths ranged from 17,000 to 54,000. But every year, tens of thousands of old folk succumb, with little fanfare and minimal media attention, to flu-related deaths.
One major public health initiative has been launched in response to these deaths, and that is to promote the flu vaccine for older Americans. The percentage of elders who are vaccinated annually has grown about four-fold in the last 30 years. But there’s just one problem with this approach: The vaccine apparently doesn’t work too well for us old folks, if at all.
For decades, the conventional wisdom was that the vaccine cut flu-related deaths in the elderly by anywhere from 25 to 75 percent. But as the New York Times reported last fall, ”a growing number of immunologists and epidemiologists say the vaccine probably does not work very well for people over 70, the group that accounts for three-fourths of all flu deaths.”A study published last year in Britain’s most respected medical journal, the Lancet, found no correlation at all between flu vaccination and a reduced risk of illness and death.