Flu vaccine is only 40-60pc effective this winter as epidemic looms
The flu jab only provides limited protection for older people against the virus - raising new fears as experts warn of a potential epidemic this winter.
The vaccine currently being distributed to GPs and pharmacists is just 40pc to 60pc effective and may have had little or no effect in keeping older age groups safe from the illness last year.
A report from the NHS in the UK found the vaccine in use there last winter had "zero effect" among the over-65s, while protecting two-in-three children.
The vaccine was used here to protect against the same strains of flu circulating.
The analysis in the UK found pensioners who had the jab fared no better than those who did not.
The HSE said yesterday it did not have data on the number of over-65s in this country who were infected with flu last winter despite getting the jab.
A spokeswoman said the effectiveness of the flu vaccine in the elderly is reduced because their immune system is weaker than younger age groups.
"This can make them more susceptible to the flu," she said.
Doctors here and in the UK fear a flu outbreak in the coming months similar to the epidemic in Australia during its recent winter - when there was a surge on cases of the A(H3N2) strain - poses a particular risk to the elderly.
Darragh O'Loughlin, a Galway pharmacist and head of the Irish Pharmacy Union, said yesterday that despite the figures, all at-risk groups, including the over-65s, should get the flu vaccine because they are reducing the odds of getting a very serious illness.
He said: "It is only after flu seasons are over that it is possible to do a full analysis of how effective a flu vaccine has been."
He added: "Just because it is not 100pc effective does not mean it is not worth getting."
Strains of flu can mutate during a winter and reduce the protection for those who have had the jab.
The vaccine distributed by the HSE is the Split Virion jab, made by Sanofi Pasteur covering two strains of Influenza A and one Influenza B which it believes will be circulating.
The HSE pointed out that the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of the illness by between 40pc and 60pc among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to jab.
It is 50-60pc effective in preventing hospitalisation among elderly people.
It is also 80pc effective in preventing death among older ages groups.
Flu is responsible for between 200 and 500 deaths each year in Ireland and in a severe season it can kill up to 1,000.
Meanwhile, an investigation is under way into allegations that some GPs in Limerick have charged elderly medical card holder €15 for the flu vaccine, although it should be free.
The issue was raised recently by Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan, who brought it to the attention of Health Minister Simon Harris.
The HSE spokesman in the mid-west said: "We have been made aware through political sources that allegedly some GPs in Limerick have been charging people over with medical cards for the flu vaccine."
The HSE unit has not received any direct complaint about it.
"We have commenced an investigation and are awaiting the outcome," he added.