How Effective Is The New Flu Vaccine?

The swine flu vaccine may have become synonymous with long lines — and short supply. So is it worth the wait and frustration to get vaccinated?

The vaccine is 70 to 90 percent effective, and that's good enough for Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says no vaccine is ever 100 percent effective, but the efficacy rate of the swine flu vaccine is "enough to have a major impact on disease and on the spread of this virus."

The estimate comes from measurements of antibodies that appear in the bloodstreams of people who've been vaccinated. Those antibodies indicate that the immune systems of those vaccinated are primed and ready to fight the virus.

In people over 65, early studies suggest the new H1N1 vaccine is only 50 percent effective. That's about what it is with the seasonal flu vaccine. Older people in general have weaker immune systems. But even at 50 percent, health researchers say it's worth it.

"When the vaccine supply becomes greater, assuming we're still experiencing problems with the infection, getting the vaccine would reduce the risk of getting the infection" says Lisa Jackson of Group Health Research Institute in Seattle.

Federal authorities have been careful all along to say that people should weigh the risks and benefits themselves. That's a difficult calculation for a lay person, but one short cut is to ask officials if they're getting vaccine.

For instance, President and Mrs. Obama are not getting the vaccine, because they're not in a priority group. But their daughters do fall into a CDC priority group — people between 6 months and 24 years old.

The new vaccine isn't expensive. The government is paying less than $10 a dose, and providing it free to clinics and doctors. So far, the vaccine appears to be as safe as the seasonal flu vaccine, except for people with egg allergies.

That said, there are still some big unknowns with the new H1N1 vaccine. While millions of doses have now been given without any problems being seen, safety problems could arise. That's unlikely, but possible.

It's more likely that the virus itself will mutate. Regular seasonal flu viruses mutate regularly, that's why there's a new seasonal flu vaccine every year.

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