ATLANTA — For those 65 and older, this season's flu shot is only 9 percent effective against the most common and dangerous flu bug, according to a startling new government report.
Flu vaccine tends to protect younger people better than older ones and never works as well as other kinds of vaccines. But experts say the preliminary results for seniors are disappointing and highlight the need for a better vaccine.
For all age groups, the vaccine's effectiveness is moderate at 56 percent, which is nearly as well as other flu seasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.
For those 65 and older, it is 27 percent effective against the three strains in the vaccine, the lowest in about a decade but not far below from what's expected. But the vaccine did a particularly poor job of protecting older people against the harshest flu strain, which is causing most of the illnesses this year. CDC officials say it's not clear why.
Vaccinations are now recommended for anyone over 6 months, and health officials stress that some vaccine protection is better than none at all. While it's likely that older people who were vaccinated are still getting sick, many of them may be getting less severe symptoms.
"Year in and year out, the vaccine is the best protection we have," said CDC flu expert Dr. Joseph Bresee.
To be sure, the preliminary data for seniors is less than definitive. It is based on fewer than 300 people scattered among five states.
But it will no doubt surprise many people that the effectiveness is that low, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota infectious disease expert who has tried to draw attention to the need for a more effective flu vaccine.
Among infectious diseases, flu is considered one of the nation's leading killers. On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.