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Vaccine Effectiveness - How Well Does the Flu Vaccine Work?

Questions & Answers

How effective is the flu vaccine?

CDC conducts studies each year to determine how well the influenza (flu) vaccine protects against flu illness. While vaccine effectiveness can vary, recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine. In general, current flu vaccines tend to work better against influenza B and influenza A(H1N1) viruses and offer lower protection against influenza A(H3N2) viruses. See “Does flu vaccine effectiveness vary by type or subtype?” and “Why is flu vaccine typically less effective against influenza A H3N2 viruses?” for more information.

What are factors that influence how well the vaccine works?

How well the flu vaccine works (or its ability to prevent flu illness) can range widely from season to season. The vaccine’s effectiveness also can vary depending on who is being vaccinated. At least two factors play an important role in determining the likelihood that flu vaccine will protect a person from flu illness: 1) characteristics of the person being vaccinated (such as their age and health), and 2) the similarity or “match” between the flu viruses the flu vaccine is designed to protect against and the flu viruses spreading in the community. During years when the flu vaccine is not well matched to circulating influenza viruses, it is possible that no benefit from flu vaccination may be observed. During years when there is a good match between the flu vaccine and circulating viruses, it is possible to measure substantial benefits from flu vaccination in terms of preventing flu illness. However, even during years when the flu vaccine match is good, the benefits of flu vaccination will vary, depending on various factors like the characteristics of the person being vaccinated, what influenza viruses are circulating that season and even, potentially, which flu vaccine was used.

Each flu season researchers try to determine how well flu vaccines work as a public health intervention. Estimates of how well a flu vaccine works can vary based on study design, outcome(s) measured, population studied and the season in which the flu vaccine was studied. These differences can make it difficult to compare one study’s results with another’s.

While determining how well a flu vaccine works is challenging, in general, recent studies have supported the conclusion that flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the flu vaccine is well matched to circulating flu viruses.

What are the benefits of flu vaccination?

While how well the flu vaccine works can vary, there are many reasons to get a flu vaccine each year.

  • Flu vaccination can keep you from getting sick with flu.
  • Flu vaccination can reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalization, including among children and older adults.
    • Vaccine effectiveness for the prevention of flu-associated hospitalizations was similar to vaccine effectiveness against flu illness resulting in doctor’s visits in a comparative study published in 2016.
  • Flu vaccination is an important preventive tool for people with chronic health conditions.
    • Flu vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac (heart) events among people with heart disease, especially among those who experienced a cardiac event in the past year.
    • Flu vaccination also has been associated with reduced hospitalizations among people with diabetes (79%) and chronic lung disease (52%).
  • Flu vaccination helps protect women during and after pregnancy. Getting vaccinated against the flu can also protect a baby from flu after birth. (A mother can pass antibodies onto the developing baby during pregnancy.)
    • A study that looked at flu vaccine effectiveness in pregnant women found that vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated acute respiratory infection (ARI) by about one half.
    • There are studies that show that vaccination of pregnant women can reduce their baby’s risk of flu illness by up to half. This protective benefit was observed for up to four months after birth.
  • Flu vaccination also may make your flu illness milder if you do get sick.
  • Getting vaccinated also protects people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.

*References for the studies listed above can be found at Publications on Influenza Vaccine Benefits. Also see the Why get a flu vaccine [224 KB, 2 Pages] fact sheet.

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Is the flu vaccine effective against all types of flu and cold viruses?

Seasonal flu vaccines are designed to protect against infection and illness caused by the three or four influenza viruses (depending on vaccine) that research indicates will be most common during the flu season. “Trivalent” flu vaccines are formulated to protect against three flu viruses, and “quadrivalent” flu vaccines protect against four flu viruses. Flu vaccines do NOT protect against infection and illness caused by other viruses that can also cause flu-like symptoms. There are many other viruses besides flu viruses that can result in flu-like illness* (also known as influenza-like illness or “ILI”) that spread during the flu season. These non-flu viruses include rhinovirus (one cause of the “common cold”) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is the most common cause of severe respiratory illness in young children, as well as a leading cause of death from respiratory illness in those aged 65 years and older.

Does flu vaccine effectiveness vary by type or subtype?

Yes.  The amount of protection provided by flu vaccines may vary by influenza virus type or subtype even when recommended flu vaccine viruses and circulating influenza viruses are alike (well matched). Since 2009, VE studies looking at how well the flu vaccine protects against medically attended illness have suggested that when vaccine viruses and circulating flu viruses are well-matched, flu vaccines provide better protection against influenza B or influenza A (H1N1) viruses than against influenza A (H3N2) viruses. A study[505 KB, 10 pages] that looked at a number of VE estimates from 2004-2015 found average VE of 33% (CI = 26%–39%) against H3N2 viruses, compared with 61% (CI = 57%–65%) against H1N1 and 54% (CI = 46%–61%) against influenza B viruses. VE estimates were lower when vaccine viruses and circulating viruses were different (not well-matched). The same study found pooled VE of 23% (95% CI: 2% to 40%) against H3N2 viruses when circulating influenza viruses were significantly different from (not well-matched to) the recommended influenza A(H3N2) vaccine component.

Why is flu vaccine typically less effective against influenza A(H3N2) viruses?

There are a number of reasons why flu vaccine effectiveness against influenza A(H3N2) viruses may be lower.

  1. While all influenza viruses undergo frequent genetic changes, the changes that have occurred in influenza A(H3N2) viruses have more frequently resulted in differences between the virus components of the flu vaccine and circulating influenza viruses (i.e., antigenic change) compared with influenza A(H1N1) and influenza B viruses. That means that between the time when the composition of the flu vaccine is recommended and the flu vaccine is delivered, H3N2 viruses are more likely than H1N1 or influenza B viruses to have changed in ways that could impact how well the flu vaccine works.
  2. Growth in eggs is part of the production process for most seasonal flu vaccines. While all influenza viruses undergo changes when they are grown in eggs, changes in influenza A(H3N2) viruses tend to be more likely to result in antigenic changes compared with changes in other influenza viruses. These so-called “egg-adapted changes” are present in vaccine viruses recommended for use in vaccine production and may reduce their potential effectiveness against circulating influenza viruses. Other vaccine production technologies, e.g., cell-based vaccine production or recombinant flu vaccines, could circumvent this shortcoming associated with the use of egg-based candidate vaccine viruses in egg-based production technology, but CDC also is using advanced molecular techniques to try to get around this short-coming.
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How effective is the flu vaccine in the elderly?

Older people with weaker immune systems often have a lower protective immune response after flu vaccination compared to younger, healthier people. This can make them more susceptible to the flu. Although immune responses may be lower in the elderly, vaccine effectiveness has been similar in most flu seasons among older adults and those with chronic health conditions compared to younger, healthy adults.

If older people have weaker immune responses to flu vaccination, should they still get vaccinated?

Despite the fact that older adults (65 years of age and older) have weaker immune responses to vaccine flu vaccines, there are many reasons why people in that age group should be vaccinated each year.

  • First, people aged 65 and older are at increased risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death from the flu.
  • Second, while the effectiveness of the flu vaccine can be low among older people, there are seasons when significant benefit can be observed. Even if the vaccine provides less protection in older adults than it might in younger people, some protection is better than no protection at all, especially in this high risk group.
  • Third, flu vaccine may protect against more serious outcomes like hospitalization and death. For example, one study concluded that one death was prevented for every 4,000 people vaccinated against the flu.
  • In frail elderly adults, hospitalizations can mark the beginning of a significant decline in overall health and mobility, potentially resulting in loss of the ability to live independently or to complete basic activities of daily living. While the protection elderly adults obtain from flu vaccination can vary significantly, a yearly flu vaccination is still the best protection currently available against the flu.
  • There is some data to suggest that flu vaccination may reduce flu illness severity; so while someone who is vaccinated may still get infected, their illness may be milder.
  • Fourth, it’s important to remember that people who are 65 and older are a diverse group and often are different from one another in terms of their overall health, level of activity and mobility, and behavior when it comes to seeking medical care. This group includes people who are healthy and active and have responsive immune systems, as well as those who have underlying medical conditions that may weaken their immune system and their bodies’ ability to respond to vaccination. Therefore, when evaluating the benefits of flu vaccination, it is important to look at a broader picture than what one study’s findings can present.

How effective is the flu vaccine in children?

Vaccination has consistently been found to provide a similar level of protection against flu illness in children to that seen among healthy adults.

In one study, flu vaccine effectiveness was higher among children who received two doses of flu vaccine the first season that they were vaccinated (as recommended) compared to “partially vaccinated” children who only received a single dose of flu vaccine. However, the partially vaccinated children still received some protection.

Flu vaccine can prevent severe, life-threatening illness in children, for example:

  • A 2014 study showed that flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission by 74% during flu seasons from 2010-2012.
  • In 2017, a study in the journal Pediatrics was the first of its kind to show that flu vaccination also significantly reduced a child’s risk of dying from the flu. The study, which looked at data from four flu seasons between 2010 and 2014, found that flu vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated death by half (51 percent) among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions and by nearly two-thirds (65 percent) among healthy children.

How are benefits of vaccination measured?

Public health researchers measure how well flu vaccines work through different kinds of studies. In “randomized studies,” flu vaccination is randomly assigned, and the number of people who get flu in the vaccinated group is compared to the number that get flu in the unvaccinated group. Randomized studies are the “gold standard” (best method) for determining how well a vaccine works. The effects of vaccination measured in these studies is called “efficacy.” Randomized studies are expensive and are not conducted after a recommendation for vaccination has been issued, as withholding vaccine from people recommended for vaccination would place them at risk for infection, illness and possibly serious complications. For that reason, most U.S. studies conducted to determine the benefits of flu vaccination are “observational studies.”

“Observational studies” compare the occurrence of flu illness in vaccinated people compared to unvaccinated people, based on their decision to be vaccinated or not. This means that vaccination of study subjects is not randomized. The measurement of vaccine effects in an observational study is referred to as “effectiveness.”

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How does CDC present data on flu vaccine effectiveness?

CDC typically presents vaccine effectiveness (VE) as a single point estimate: for example, 60%. This point estimate represents the reduction in risk provided by the flu vaccine. CDC vaccine effectiveness studies measure two outcomes: laboratory confirmed flu illness that results in a doctor’s visit or laboratory-confirmed flu that results in hospitalization. For these outcomes, a VE point estimate of 60% means that the flu vaccine reduces a person’s risk of an outcome by 60%.

In addition to the VE point estimate, CDC also provides a “confidence interval” (CI) for this point estimate, for example, 60% (95% CI: 50%-70%). The confidence interval provides a lower boundary for the VE estimate (e.g., 50%) as well as an upper boundary (e.g., 70%). One way to interpret a 95% confidence interval is that if CDC were to repeat this study 100 times, 95 times out of 100, the true VE value would fall within the confidence interval (i.e., on or between 50% and 70%). There is still the possibility that five times out of 100 (a 5% chance) the true VE value could fall outside of the 50%-70% confidence interval.

Why are confidence intervals important for understanding flu vaccine effectiveness?

Confidence intervals are important because they provide context for understanding the precision or exactness of a VE point estimate. The wider the confidence interval, the less exact the point value estimate of vaccine effectiveness becomes. Take, for example, a VE point estimate of 60%. If the confidence interval of this point estimate is 50%-70%, then we can have greater certainty that the true protective effect of the flu vaccine is near 60% than if the confidence interval was 10-90%. Furthermore, if a confidence interval crosses zero, for example, (-20% to 60%), then the point value estimate of VE provided is “not statistically significant.” People should be cautious when interpreting VE estimates that are not statistically significant because such results cannot rule out the possibility of zero VE (i.e., no protective benefit). The width of a confidence interval is related in part to the number of participants in the study, and so studies that provide more precise estimates of VE (and consequently, have a narrower confidence interval) typically include a large number of participants.

Is it true that getting vaccinated repeatedly can reduce vaccine effectiveness?

Some studies do suggest that flu vaccine effectiveness may be higher in people receiving flu vaccine for the first time compared to people who have been vaccinated more than once; other studies have found no evidence that repeat vaccination results in a person being less-protected against flu.

Immune responses to vaccination may be higher among people who were not vaccinated in a previous season, but repeatedly vaccinated people (i.e., people who receive the flu vaccine each year) may still have increased immune responses after vaccination.

Two reviews of multiple studies have found that for people vaccinated in the prior season, vaccination in the subsequent season provides additional protection against flu.

Information regarding flu vaccination history is particularly important to these types of evaluations, and can be difficult to confirm, as accurate vaccination records are not always readily available. People who choose to get vaccinated every year may have different characteristics and susceptibility to flu compared to those who do not seek vaccination every year. CDC thinks that these findings merit further investigation to understand the immune response to repeat vaccination. CDC supports continued efforts to monitor the effects of repeat vaccination each year. However, based on the substantial burden of flu in the United States, and on the fact that most studies point to vaccination benefits, CDC recommends that yearly flu vaccination remains the first and most important step in protecting against flu and its complications.

Why are there so many different outcomes for vaccine effectiveness studies?

Vaccine effectiveness studies that measure different outcomes are conducted to better understand the different kinds of benefits provided by vaccination. Ideally, public health researchers want to know how well flu vaccines work to prevent illness resulting in a doctor visit, or illness resulting in hospitalization, and even death associated with the flu, to evaluate the benefits of vaccination against illness of varying severity.  Because estimates of vaccine effectiveness may vary based on the outcome measured (in addition to season, population studied and other factors), results should be compared between studies that used the same outcome for estimating vaccine effectiveness.

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How does CDC measure how well the vaccine works?

Scientists continue to work on better ways to design, conduct and evaluate non-randomized (i.e., observational) studies to assess how well flu vaccines work. CDC has been working with researchers at universities and hospitals since the 2003-2004 flu season to estimate how well flu vaccine works through observational studies using laboratory-confirmed flu as the outcome. These studies currently use a very accurate and sensitive laboratory test known as RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) to confirm medically-attended flu virus infections as a specific outcome. CDC’s studies are conducted in five sites across the United States to gather more representative data. To assess how well the vaccine works across different age groups, CDC’s studies of flu vaccine effects have included all people aged 6 months and older recommended for an annual flu vaccination. Similar studies are being done in Australia, Canada and Europe. More recently, CDC has set up a second network the Hospitalized Adult Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network (HAIVEN) that looks at how well flu vaccine protects against flu-related hospitalization among adults aged 18 and older.

What do recent vaccine effectiveness studies show?

CDC conducts studies each year to determine how well the flu vaccine protects against flu illness. These estimates provide more information about how well this season’s vaccine is working. Recent studies show vaccine can reduce the risk of flu illness by between 40-60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well matched to the flu vaccine.

Do recent vaccine effectiveness study results support flu vaccination?

The large numbers of flu-associated illnesses and deaths in the United States, combined with the evidence from many studies that show flu vaccines help to provide protection, support the current U.S. flu vaccination recommendations. It is important to note, however, that how well flu vaccines work will continue to vary each year, depending especially on the match between the flu vaccine and the flu viruses that are spreading and causing illness in the community, as well as the characteristics of the person being vaccinated.

Where can I get more information?

CDC has compiled a list of selected publications related to vaccine effectiveness.

Besides vaccination, how can people protect themselves against the flu?

Getting a flu vaccine each year is the best way to prevent the flu. Antiviral drugs are an important second line of defense against the flu. These drugs must be prescribed by a doctor. In addition, good health habits, such as covering your cough and frequently washing your hands with soap, can help prevent the spread of the flu and other respiratory illnesses.

More information on Vaccine Selection.

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