When it comes to pandemic flu, the best strategy for the U.S. is not to vaccinate those at highest risk of illness, but rather to vaccinate those at highest risk of transmission. That’s the best way to protect the country’s most vulnerable people, according to a new study published today in the journal Science. The theory goes: If you can stop the transmitters from spreading the disease, then it doesn’t matter how susceptible the others are. There won’t be any flu going around to catch.
The results were generated using by an elaborate computer model. They show that, for a given number of vaccine doses available, the U.S. can avert more deaths and more illnesses by vaccinating kids aged 5 – 19 and adults 30 – 39, instead of vaccinating younger children and the elderly — a strategy currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This optimal strategy seems to hold up pretty well irrespective of whether you figure the pandemic will have an age pattern of mortality like that seen during the 1918 outbreak (which hit children and young adults especially hard) or like that seen during the pandemic of 1957 (which was worse for the elderly). No matter who’s dying, it seems, it’s school kids who are most likely to spread the disease. Their parents act as a bridge to the rest of the population.