Influenza (flu) vaccination for preventing influenza in adults with cancer

Adults with cancer are prone to serious complications from influenza, more than healthy adults. The influenza vaccine protects against influenza and its complications. However, its effectiveness among cancer patients is unclear, as the immune dysfunction that accompanies cancer and as a result of chemotherapy might lower immune response to the vaccine. Cancer patients, therefore, do not have clear information on the importance, need and safety of the vaccine.

This review focused on the effectiveness of influenza vaccination in adults with cancer who have a suppressed immune system because of the cancer or chemotherapy. We identified four clinical studies addressing this question, only one of which was a randomized controlled trial, where patients were randomly selected to get or not to get the vaccine. Two studies showed that adults with cancer who were vaccinated were found to have lower rates of death, but these studies were not randomized. Pooling (combining) results from the different studies was not possible because of different methods or different way of reporting results. There was a significantly lower rate of influenza-like illness (any febrile respiratory illness), pneumonia, confirmed influenza and hospitalization, for any reason, among vaccine recipients in at least one study for each outcome. No side-effects to the vaccine were reported in these studies. The strength of evidence is limited by the low number of studies and by their low methodological quality (high risk of bias). It is unlikely that there will be any future controlled trials to investigate this issue but the current evidence, although weak, suggests a benefit for influenza vaccination amongst adults with cancer and the vaccine was not found to be harmful. Influenza vaccines given to adults with cancer contain an inactivated virus that cannot cause influenza or other viral infection. The possibility for benefit shown in this review supports yearly influenza vaccination in adults with cancer receiving chemotherapy.

Authors' conclusions: 

Observational data suggests a lower mortality with influenza vaccination. Infection-related outcomes were lower or similar with influenza vaccination. The strength of evidence is limited by the small number of studies and by the fact that only one was a RCT. Influenza vaccination is safe and the evidence, although weak, is in favour of vaccinating adults with cancer receiving chemotherapy.

Read the full abstract...

Immunosuppressed cancer patients are at increased risk of serious influenza-related complications. Guidelines, therefore, recommend influenza vaccination for these patients. However, data on vaccine effectiveness in this population is lacking, and the value of vaccination in this population remains unclear.


To assess the effectiveness of influenza vaccine in immunosuppressed adults with malignancies. The primary review outcome is all-cause mortality, preferably at the end of the influenza season. Influenza-like illness (ILI, a clinical definition), confirmed influenza, pneumonia, any hospitalization and influenza-related mortality were defined as secondary outcomes.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE and LILACS databases up to August 2013. We searched the following conference proceedings: ICAAC, ECCMID, IDSA (infectious disease conferences), ASH, ASBMT, EBMT (hematological), and ASCO (oncological) between the years 2006 to 2010. In addition, we scanned the references of all identified studies and pertinent reviews. We searched the websites of the manufacturers of influenza vaccine. Finally, we searched for ongoing or unpublished trials in clinical trial registry databases using the website.

Selection criteria: 

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs), prospective and retrospective cohort studies and case-control studies were considered, comparing inactivated influenza vaccines versus placebo, no vaccination or a different vaccine, in adults (16 years and over) with cancer. We considered solid malignancies treated with chemotherapy, haematological cancer patients treated or not treated with chemotherapy, cancer patients post-autologous (up to six months after transplantation) or allogeneic (at any time) hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed the risk of bias and extracted data from included studies adhering to Cochrane methodology. Meta-analysis could not be performed because of different outcome and denominator definitions in the included studies.

Main results: 

We identified four studies: one RCT and three observational studies, including 2124 participants. One study reported results in person-years while the other three reported per person. The studies were performed between 1993 and 2012 and included adults with haematological diseases (two studies), patients following bone marrow transplantation (one study) and solid malignancies (three studies). Only two observational studies reported all-cause mortality; one showing an adjusted hazard ratio (HR) of 0.88 (95% CI 0.77 to 0.99) for death with vaccination and the other reporting an odds ratio (OR) of 0.43 (95% CI 0.26 to 0.71). The RCT reported a statistically significant reduction in ILI with vaccination, while no difference was observed in one observational study. Confirmed influenza rates were lower with vaccination in the three observational studies, the difference reaching statistical significance in one. Pneumonia was observed significantly less frequently with vaccination in one observational study, but no difference was detected in another or in the RCT. The RCT showed a reduction in hospitalizations following vaccination, while an observational study found no difference. No life-threatening or persistent adverse effects from vaccination were reported. The strength of evidence is limited by the low number of included studies and by their low methodological quality (high risk of bias).