Flu Vaccines Need to be Improved for Seniors

Lining up for a Flu shot (CDC Janet Astor)

The new flu season has begun, but according to a report from an AARP Bulletin that analyzed data from the government, deaths from flu in seniors over age 65 have risen in the last few years. More than 12,000 seniors died from flu and flu complications during last year’s flu season that began October 1, 2017. This was more than twice the rate of flu related deaths in seniors from the 2016-17 flu season. The rate may actually be higher because flu is not always listed as a cause of death on the certificate and people who die from complications from the flu like pneumonia may only have pneumonia listed on their death certificates. Last year also saw an unprecedented rise in hospitalizations from the flu.

Need for Universal Flu Vaccine

This has set off alarm bells, especially as seniors have a good track record for getting flu shots. In 2017, 69% of seniors got flu shots. Towards the end of February, 2018, when people, mainly the elderly had been dying during the prior four weeks at the rate of 169 people a day or seven people per hour and also under pressure from Congress, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced that there would be a major initiative to develop a new, more effective universal vaccine, that would cover many different strains of flu and that would only have to be given once every few years. In general, the flu vaccines work better in younger, healthier people than in seniors who have weakened immune systems.

Flu Shots Have Good Years and Bad Years

The present flu shots have good years when they are 60% effective and bad years when they are only 10% effective. Flu vaccines are a challenge because the viruses undergo mutations and are always changing unlike a childhood chicken pox or measles vaccine that only has to be given once. Scientists have to try to determine which of the many flu strains will be the dominant one and not only is this difficult to do, but the viruses are always undergoing mutations and changes.

High Dose flu Vaccine Available

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that while a high-dose flu vaccine for seniors over 65 has been developed, the Fluzone High-Dose and shown to be more effective, nonetheless, many clinics are wary of ordering it and instead continue to order the weaker vaccines. In spite of this, the CDC is recommending that everyone who is at least six months of age or older get the flu shot even if it will only provide limited protection, as this is better than nothing.

In the meantime Congress gave $100 million for the 2018-19 flu season but this is still short of the amount needed to come up with a super flu vaccine that would cover all the strains.

How to Prevent Getting the Flu

By all means get a flu shot unless you have a strong egg allergy and are prone to anaphylactic shock. There may be egg-free vaccines available. However, do not assume that because of the shot you can forego other preventive measures.

The CDC reports that a nasal spray flu vaccine is also available this year – nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine or “LAIV.”

In light of the fact that the vaccine alone should not be relied on there are other steps to be taken to prevent getting the flu:

During the flu season stay out of crowds, especially where there may be sick people. Most seniors will remember the polio epidemics of the 50s and early 60s before Dr. Jonas Salk developed the Salk polio vaccine. During that time the only defense against polio was to avoid all crowded public places and swimming pools during the summer months.

If you are healthy, but only need a prescription refilled from your doctor, try to get him to send it to you by fax or email rather than sitting in a crowded doctor’s office full of coughing and sneezing people.

Be scrupulous about washing your hands. The AARP says that a person should rub their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, whereas most people only do this for six seconds.

 If you have to hold on to hand railings when walking down stairs, then carry with you disinfectant wipes and wipe your hands with them. Also, cell phones and computer keyboards are notorious for being loaded with germs. Wipe them off periodically with antiseptic wipes.

Drink at least 2 cups of freshly squeezed orange juice every day. This is far better than swallowing Vitamin C pills, especially as research has shown that supplemental Vitamin C is not as good as getting it from fresh fruits and vegetables. Orange juice builds up the immune system and can prevent many viral infections like the flu.

Some herbal teas are anti-viral and can help protect against the flu like anise seed, fennel, chamomile, sage, rosemary and bay leaves. Drink the teas warm with honey. Licorice root is a powerful anti-viral, but cannot be taken by people with high blood pressure, as it can raise blood pressure. It should only be taken in very small amounts and not over a long period of time. Common Myrtle (myrtus communis) is also anti-viral, anti bacterial and anti fungal and it is very good for preventing all kinds of sinus and lung problems. It also is anti-allergic and is good for people with asthma. Myrtle can also lower blood pressure, so it should be used with caution by people on blood-pressure lowering medicines.

See your Doctor if you Get the Flu

It goes without saying, that if you do get the flu you should see your doctor, as your doctor might prescribe Tamiflu which is a strong anti-viral made from the star anise plant. Your doctor might also give you antibiotics if you have developed a secondary infection from the flu and especially if you get pneumonia.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Flu

The CDC has compiled a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) concerning the 2018-19 flu season.

Vaccinations for Seniors Living in Residential Facilities

If your loved one is in a rehab and skilled nursing and care facility, make sure they get a flu shot.


Seniors should get the flu shot, but also not rely on it alone to protect them from the flu.


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