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Time for a flu review

Each autumn, GPs brace themselves for the strange annual ritual that is the flu vaccination campaign – with its frantic clinics, stressful delays and ever-toughening uptake targets.

Each autumn, GPs brace themselves for the strange annual ritual that is the flu vaccination campaign – with its frantic clinics, stressful delays and ever-toughening uptake targets.

It's not a pleasant time but at least, GPs have always been told, it is thoroughly worthwhile.

Except that for some time there's been growing unease over flu vaccination, as a series of reviews cast doubt on the quality of the supporting evidence. This week, those doubts escalated into a full-blown crisis of confidence. Health Protection Agency researchers looked in detail at a recent flu vaccination campaign in the UK – and found it had had no effect on the rate of hospital admissions. Not absence of evidence of effectiveness, then, but pretty strong evidence of absence of an effect.

Searching questions

You might think this research, from a leading Government advisory body, would prompt some rather searching questions about the future of the campaign. But ministers often strangely lose their enthusiasm for evidence-based medicine when one of their pet schemes comes under scrutiny.

Just look at community matrons, working alongside GPs up and down the country – despite an official evaluation finding they would not keep patients out of hospital.

Evidence, of course, is a fluid thing. What looks clear one day can be fogged with uncertainty the next. It is time ministers recognised that, and were as willing to revisit their decisions as academic researchers are their conclusions.

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