In three case-control studies and a household transmission cohort, Danuta Skowronski and colleagues find an association between prior seasonal flu vaccination and increased risk of 2009 pandemic H1N1 flu.
In late spring 2009, concern was raised in Canada that prior vaccination with the 2008–09 trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine (TIV) was associated with increased risk of pandemic influenza A (H1N1) (pH1N1) illness. Several epidemiologic investigations were conducted through the summer to assess this putative association.
Methods and Findings
Studies included: (1) test-negative case-control design based on Canada's sentinel vaccine effectiveness monitoring system in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec; (2) conventional case-control design using population controls in Quebec; (3) test-negative case-control design in Ontario; and (4) prospective household transmission (cohort) study in Quebec. Logistic regression was used to estimate odds ratios for TIV effect on community- or hospital-based laboratory-confirmed seasonal or pH1N1 influenza cases compared to controls with restriction, stratification, and adjustment for covariates including combinations of age, sex, comorbidity, timeliness of medical visit, prior physician visits, and/or health care worker (HCW) status. For the prospective study risk ratios were computed. Based on the sentinel study of 672 cases and 857 controls, 2008–09 TIV was associated with statistically significant protection against seasonal influenza (odds ratio 0.44, 95% CI 0.33–0.59). In contrast, estimates from the sentinel and three other observational studies, involving a total of 1,226 laboratory-confirmed pH1N1 cases and 1,505 controls, indicated that prior receipt of 2008–09 TIV was associated with increased risk of medically attended pH1N1 illness during the spring–summer 2009, with estimated risk or odds ratios ranging from 1.4 to 2.5. Risk of pH1N1 hospitalization was not further increased among vaccinated people when comparing hospitalized to community cases.
Prior receipt of 2008–09 TIV was associated with increased risk of medically attended pH1N1 illness during the spring–summer 2009 in Canada. The occurrence of bias (selection, information) or confounding cannot be ruled out. Further experimental and epidemiological assessment is warranted. Possible biological mechanisms and immunoepidemiologic implications are considered.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every winter, millions of people catch influenza—a viral infection of the airways—and hundreds of thousands of people die as a result. These seasonal epidemics occur because small but frequent changes in the influenza virus mean that an immune response produced one year through infection or vaccination provides only partial protection against influenza the next year. Annual vaccination with killed influenza viruses of the major circulating strains can greatly reduce a person's risk of catching influenza. Consequently, many countries run seasonal influenza vaccination programs. In most of Canada, vaccination with a mixture of three inactivated viruses (a trivalent inactivated vaccine or TIV) is provided free to children aged 6–23 months, to elderly people, to people with long-term conditions that increase their risk of influenza-related complications, and those who provide care for them; in Ontario, free vaccination is offered to everyone older than 6 months.
In addition, influenza viruses occasionally emerge that are very different and to which human populations have virtually no immunity. These viruses can start global epidemics (pandemics) that can kill millions of people. Experts have been warning for some time that an influenza pandemic is long overdue and, in March 2009, the first cases of influenza caused by a new virus called pandemic A/H1N1 2009 (pH1N1; swine flu) occurred in Mexico. The virus spread rapidly and on 11 June 2009, the World Health Organization declared that a global pandemic of pH1N1 influenza was underway. By the end of February 2010, more than 16,000 people around the world had died from pH1N1.
Why Was This Study Done?
During an investigation of a school outbreak of pH1N1 in the late spring 2009 in Canada, investigators noted that people with illness characterized by fever and coughing had been vaccinated against seasonal influenza more often than individuals without such illness. To assess whether this association between prior vaccination with seasonal 2008–09 TIV and subsequent pH1N1 illness was evident in other settings, researchers in Canada therefore conducted additional studies using different methods. In this paper, the researchers report the results of four additional studies conducted in Canada during the summer of 2009 to assess this possible association.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers conducted four epidemiologic studies. Epidemiology is the study of the causes, distribution, and control of diseases in populations.
Three of the four studies were case-control studies in which the researchers assessed the frequency of prior vaccination with the 2008–09 TIV in people with pH1N1 influenza compared to the frequency among healthy members of the general population or among individuals who had an influenza-like illness but no sign of infection with an influenza virus. The researchers also did a household transmission study in which they collected information about vaccination with TIV among the additional cases of influenza that were identified in 47 households in which a case of laboratory-confirmed pH1N1 influenza had occurred. The first of the case-control studies, which was based on Canada's vaccine effectiveness monitoring system, showed that, as expected, the 2008–09 TIV provided protection against seasonal influenza. However, estimates from all four studies (which included about 1,200 laboratory-confirmed pH1N1 cases and 1,500 controls) showed that prior recipients of the 2008–09 TIV had approximately 1.4–2.5 times increased chances of developing pH1N1 illness that needed medical attention during the spring–summer of 2009 compared to people who had not received the TIV. Prior seasonal vaccination was not associated with an increase in the severity of pH1N1 illness, however. That is, it did not increase the risk of being hospitalized among those with pH1N1 illness.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Because all the investigations in this study are “observational,” the people who had been vaccinated might share another unknown characteristic that is actually responsible for increasing their risk of developing pH1N1 illness (“confounding”). Furthermore, the results reported in this study might have arisen by chance, although the consistency of results across the studies makes this unlikely. Thus, the finding of an association between prior receipt of 2008–09 TIV and an increased risk of pH1N1 illness is not conclusive and needs to be investigated further, particularly since some other observational studies conducted in other countries have reported that seasonal vaccination had no influence or may have been associated with reduced chances of pH1N1 illness. If the findings in the current study are real, however, they raise important questions about the biological interactions between seasonal and pandemic influenza strains and vaccines, and about the best way to prevent and control both types of influenza in future.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000258.
This article is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Cécile Viboud and Lone Simonsen
FightFlu.ca, a Canadian government Web site, provides access to information on pH1N1 influenza
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about influenza for patients and professionals, including specific information on H1N1 influenza
Flu.gov, a US government website, provides access to information on H1N1, avian and pandemic influenza
The World Health Organization provides information on seasonal influenza and has detailed information on pH1N1 influenza (in several languages)
The UK Health Protection Agency provides information on pandemic influenza and on pH1N1 influenza