​​​​​​​Study: Staff flu vaccine mandates based on flawed research

Rules that require hospital staff to get annual flu vaccinations are based on flawed evidence, according to a new study.

Many hospital workers are required to get vaccinated against influenza or face consequences at work, but a new study suggests the research supporting those requirements is flawed. And simple math backs up their conclusion.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, says such policies are unlikely to produce the benefits that previous research suggests. For instance, one prior study conducted in the long-term care setting found that one flu death could be prevented for every eight workers vaccinated for the virus.

But the new study finds that math doesn't add up. If all 1.7 million of the nation’s healthcare workers in these settings were vaccinated, under the previous study's logic more than 210,000 deaths would be prevented each year.

That far exceeds the number of actual flu deaths recorded in the U.S. each year.

Extending that figure to hospitals, according to the study, would mean 5.5 million vaccinated workers and more than 680,000 lives saved. That figure is greater than the number of deaths estimated in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

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The researchers, who were based in Canada, Australia and France, aren’t saying that flu vaccines aren’t beneficial, according to an article from STAT. Gaston De Serres, M.D., a professor of epidemiology at Laval University in Quebec and the study’s lead author, told STAT that he personally gets a flu vaccine each year but has trouble supporting policies that force them on staff members.

“The reason why I do that is I continue to have the impression that it could work. But it’s one thing to say: ‘OK, on a voluntary basis, you get the vaccine despite all its weaknesses,’ and it’s another thing to say, ‘If you don’t get it, you get fired,’” De Serres told the publication.

Andrew C. Hayward, M.D., head of the department of infectious informatics at University College London and one of the authors of the original study that's now under fire, defended the research in an editorial accompanying De Serres’ study, saying that the patients under observation were elderly and very frail, and the research shows that providers treating such patients should be vaccinated for the flu.

Flu vaccine mandates are a hard sell to employees, and health unions have sued over such provisions. A number of states, including Rhode Island and Colorado, require such rules. However, one study found that it's unlikely that significant numbers of staff members would leave their jobs in response to a flu vaccine requirement.