Goodbye, Colbert . . . hello, flu

Tim Mullaney
Tim Mullaney

In honor of Stephen Colbert's recently ended run on Comedy Central, I'd like to address some “truthiness” I've recently spotted, which I believe could harm long-term care residents.

The term truthiness, you may recall, was coined by Colbert — or at least popularized by him. It's a somewhat slippery term, but Colbert himself defined it as, “What I say is right, and nothing that anyone else says could possibly be true.” Merriam-Webster, which named it “Word of the Year” for 2006, elaborated that it is a “truth” that comes “from the gut” or that is based on one's own desires rather than facts.

I've always thought that the word implies an idea that is rooted in facts, but that gets distorted by your own wishes for what might be true. Because of this, you end up expressing ideas that are “truthy” rather than “true.” That are not entirely false, but that are not, by objective and verifiable measures, true.

That brings me to this year's flu vaccine. I've spotted claims — posted on the McKnight's website by readers and also elsewhere on the Web — that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted that this year's vaccine is useless.

I hereby declare these claims “truthy.”

I was on the press call when CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., supposedly made this admission. Here's what is true:

Frieden explained that this year's flu vaccine might not protect well against the most common strain of the virus circulating this year.

But this is also true:

He said the vaccine might provide limited protection against the most common strain, and even this limited protection could be very beneficial, because the strain is particularly dangerous. The vaccine also potentially will provide effective protection against other forms of the flu, and it absolutely still is a recommended and crucial line of defense against this killer that likes to target nursing home residents.

I understand why people opposed to mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers (or vaccines in general) would seize on just one part of Frieden's comment as proof that they are justified in their position. But they also are definitely oversimplifying what he actually said — as the transcript and recording will prove.

There are two other facts I'll submit for the record. One is that the high-dose flu vaccine has been shown in a clinical trial to significantly boost the immune response specifically of nursing home residents (we reported this last year, and the findings have now made it into a journal). It's not a silver bullet, but the findings erode arguments that the flu vaccine simply doesn't work for those who are old and frail.

Then there's this: Flu levels now are rising. In Iowa, the number of hospitalizations for flu “more than doubled in recent weeks,” The Associated Press reported. People 65 and older have been hit hardest so far.

Putting it all together, I believe we can say the following is not truthy, but true: This year's flu vaccine is not great but is not entirely useless, a high-dose vaccine in particular is good for nursing home residents, and the current threat of flu is real and growing.

I hate to be a scold, especially with Christmas so near — but if your gut says that you (or the residents you care for) don't really need the flu vaccine, I think you should take a harder look at the facts. That is, unless you've joined Colbert and Santa as an immortal.

Tim Mullaney is McKnight's Associate Editor. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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