Marc Baguelin and colleagues use virological, clinical, epidemiological, and behavioral data to estimate how policies for influenza vaccination programs may be optimized in England and Wales.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Influenza vaccine policies that maximise health benefit through efficient use of limited resources are needed. Generally, influenza vaccination programmes have targeted individuals 65 y and over and those at risk, according to World Health Organization recommendations. We developed methods to synthesise the multiplicity of surveillance datasets in order to evaluate how changing target populations in the seasonal vaccination programme would affect infection rate and mortality.
Methods and Findings
Using a contemporary evidence-synthesis approach, we use virological, clinical, epidemiological, and behavioural data to develop an age- and risk-stratified transmission model that reproduces the strain-specific behaviour of influenza over 14 seasons in England and Wales, having accounted for the vaccination uptake over this period. We estimate the reduction in infections and deaths achieved by the historical programme compared with no vaccination, and the reduction had different policies been in place over the period. We find that the current programme has averted 0.39 (95% credible interval 0.34–0.45) infections per dose of vaccine and 1.74 (1.16–3.02) deaths per 1,000 doses. Targeting transmitters by extending the current programme to 5–16-y-old children would increase the efficiency of the total programme, resulting in an overall reduction of 0.70 (0.52–0.81) infections per dose and 1.95 (1.28–3.39) deaths per 1,000 doses. In comparison, choosing the next group most at risk (50–64-y-olds) would prevent only 0.43 (0.35–0.52) infections per dose and 1.77 (1.15–3.14) deaths per 1,000 doses.
This study proposes a framework to integrate influenza surveillance data into transmission models. Application to data from England and Wales confirms the role of children as key infection spreaders. The most efficient use of vaccine to reduce overall influenza morbidity and mortality is thus to target children in addition to older adults.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every winter, millions of people catch influenza, a viral infection of the airways. Most infected individuals recover quickly, but seasonal influenza outbreaks (epidemics) kill about half a million people annually. In countries with advanced health systems, these deaths occur mainly among elderly people and among individuals with long-term illnesses such as asthma and heart disease that increase the risk of complications occurring after influenza virus infection. Epidemics of influenza occur because small but frequent changes in the influenza virus mean that an immune response produced one year through infection provides only partial protection against influenza the following year. Annual immunization with a vaccine that contains killed influenza viruses of the major circulating strains can greatly reduce a person's risk of catching influenza by preparing the immune system to respond quickly when challenged by a live influenza virus. Consequently, many countries run seasonal influenza vaccination programs that, in line with World Health Organization recommendations, target individuals 65 years old and older and people in high-risk groups.
Why Was This Study Done?
Is this approach the best use of available resources? Might, for example, vaccination of children—the main transmitters of influenza—provide more benefit to the whole population than vaccination of elderly people? Vaccination of children would not directly prevent as many influenza-related deaths as vaccination of elderly people, but it might indirectly prevent deaths in elderly adults by inducing herd immunity—vaccination of a large part of a population can protect unvaccinated members of the population by reducing the chances of an infection spreading. Policy makers need to know whether a change to an influenza vaccination program is likely to provide additional population benefits before altering the program. In this evidence synthesis and modeling study, the researchers combine (synthesize) longitudinal influenza surveillance datasets (data collected over time) from England and Wales, develop a mathematical model for influenza transmission based on these data using a Bayesian statistical approach, and use the model to evaluate the impact on influenza infections and deaths of changes to the seasonal influenza vaccination program in England and Wales.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers developed an influenza transmission model using clinical data on influenza-like illness consultations collected in a primary care surveillance scheme for each week of 14 influenza seasons in England and Wales, virological information on respiratory viruses detected in a subset of patients presenting with clinically suspected influenza, and data on vaccination coverage in the whole population (epidemiological data). They also incorporated data on social contacts (behavioral data) and on immunity to influenza viruses in the population (seroepidemiological data) into their model. To estimate the impact of potential changes to the current vaccination strategy in England and Wales, the researchers used their model, which replicated the patterns of disease observed in the surveillance data, to run simulated epidemics for each influenza season and for three strains of influenza virus under various vaccination scenarios. Compared to no vaccination, the current program (vaccination of people 65 years old and older and people in high-risk groups) averted 0.39 infections per dose of vaccine and 1.74 deaths per 1,000 doses. Notably, the model predicted that extension of the program to target 5–16-year-old children would increase the efficiency of the program and would avert 0.70 infections per dose and 1.95 deaths per 1,000 doses.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The finding that the transmission model developed by the researchers closely fit the available surveillance data suggests that the model should be able to predict what would have happened in England and Wales over the study period if an alternative vaccination regimen had been in place. The accuracy of such predictions may be limited, however, because the vaccination model is based on a series of simplifying assumptions. Importantly, given that influenza vaccination for children is being rolled out in England and Wales from September 2013, the model confirms that children are key spreaders of influenza and suggests that a vaccination program targeting children will reduce influenza infections and potentially influenza deaths in the whole population. More generally, the findings of this study support wider adoption of national vaccination strategies designed to block influenza transmission and to target those individuals most at risk from the complications of influenza infection.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371.journal.pmed.1001527.
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information for patients about seasonal influenza and about vaccination; Public Health England (formerly the Health Protection Agency) provides information on influenza surveillance in the UK, including information about the primary care surveillance database used in this study
The World Health Organization provides information on seasonal influenza (in several languages)
The European Influenzanet is a system to monitor the activity of influenza-like illness with the aid of volunteers via the Internet
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provides information for patients and health professionals on all aspects of seasonal influenza, including information about vaccination and about the US influenza surveillance system; its website contains a short video about personal experiences of influenza
Flu.gov, a US government website, provides access to information on seasonal influenza and vaccination
MedlinePlus has links to further information about influenza and about immunization (in English and Spanish)