Tom Chivers

Winter is coming: do you really need a flu jab?

Winter is coming. You can tell because the days are drawing in, the light has that autumnal greyness, and the first bloody advent calendars are in the shops. Also, those of us who are old, pregnant or still in nappies are reminded reminded to take our flu jabs.

The Telegraph, among other outlets, is reporting that two million UK children will be eligible for the new nasal-spray influenza vaccine this year; it’s been extended to include four-year-olds as well as the two- and three-year-olds who were eligible last year.

I’m hugely wary of any sort of criticism of vaccination programmes, because the sort of people who criticise them are usually homeopathy-using cranks who think the CIA is controlling them through their tooth fillings, and because vaccination is clearly one of the great public health breakthroughs of the last two centuries. What’s worse, media criticism of vaccines was behind the MMR catastrophe, which led to thousands of children needlessly catching measles.

So when the NHS says you should take your flu vaccines, children and old people, I think you should listen to them. But the flu vaccine is an interesting case: unlike the MMR jab, the evidence for its effectiveness is far less clear-cut.

The Cochrane Library has done reviews both into the jabs for older people and into the nasal sprays for children and found, in both cases, that much more work is needed before either can be shown to be a cost-effective way of preventing the disease.

Cochrane reviews, which are systematic examinations of the evidence for a treatment, are a wonderful shortcut for science writers like me: if a Cochrane review says something, it’s almost certainly right.

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