When Tom Violante got vaccinated against the flu in November, things seemed to go smoothly for the 66-year-old retiree. He didn't have a reaction. Actually, he felt pretty good -- until earlier this month.
"I started to feel like I had a really bad cold," Violante said. "After a week, I couldn't get out of bed."
Eventually, he went to a doctor who told him he had a full-blown case of the flu.
"I was very surprised," said Violante, a New Haven resident, adding that he was sick for nearly two weeks with the contagious respiratory disease.
He likely isn't the only senior who came down with the flu despite being vaccinated. Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that this year's flu vaccine was only 9 percent effective in protecting those 65 and older against influenza A, this year's dominant strain.
Some, including Violante, were alarmed to hear those findings, as seniors are particularly vulnerable to the flu and more likely than younger people to develop complications. Of the 30 people in the state who have died from the flu this season, 26 were 65 and older.
"I think that's a scary number, especially in a year where you're hearing about flu being so prevalent," Nora Duncan, state director for AARP Connecticut.
Though occurrences of the illness appear to be declining in the state, there have been more than 4,800 confirmed cases so far this season. Last season, there were only about 1,000.
But the CDC report shouldn't dissuade anyone from being vaccinated, said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious diseases at Bridgeport Hospital. He said even in cases where the vaccine didn't prevent someone from getting flu, it still might have made a difference. "You have to ask, what did (the vaccine) do?" Saul said. "Did it stop these people from dying? Did they get a milder case of flu than they might have gotten without it?"
The CDC report showed that, on average, the vaccine was 56 percent effective in preventing all strains of flu across all age groups. It was slightly less potent against influenza A in all age groups, with an effectiveness of 47 percent in preventing the strain.
The numbers aren't terribly surprising, said Louise Dembry, associate director of hospital epidemiology at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She said it's hard to know and prepare for which strains will be dominant from one season to the next.
"The efficacy of the vaccine is largely determined when the season is coming to an end," she said.
Both Dembry and Saul said seniors are typically a tricky group to protect from any illness.
"Almost all vaccines are not as effective in older people," Saul said.
If the report does anything, it re-emphasizes the importance of as many people getting the shot as possible, Duncan said. If you protect yourself, she said, you're less likely to pass flu to someone else, particularly an older person for whom the vaccine might not be as protective.
In fact, she said, AARP is trying to develop state legislation that would encourage more workers in nursing homes to get flu shots, in the hopes of protecting seniors from the illness.
Even Violante said his experience won't deter him from getting a flu shot in the future. He said it's unlikely that lightning will strike twice, and he is confidant he'll be better protected next season.
"Absolutely, I'll get (the shot) again," Violante said. "I believe in it."
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